They’re on their way. They’re already there. They won’t be there for months. They’re on board ships soon to dock. They haven’t been sent. They may never be sent.
In the past few weeks all those descriptions have been used to say what has happened – or not – to the much-discussed but so far unseen, at least in Syria, S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has sold or deployed to 13 countries around the world.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that while his country had every right to sell arms to the Syrian government, Moscow had not yet delivered the advanced S-300 air defense system to Damascus.
But that has not cooled a war of words over the S-300s that some say could threaten an outright war between Israel and Russia over the sophisticated missile defense system.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to warn that should Russia deliver the system to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the S-300 “is likely to draw us into a response, and could send the region deteriorating into war.” Some Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz, have made more explicit threats, telling diplomats and reporters that Israel would not hesitate to destroy the S-300 system rather than see it in Syrian hands.
But the exact scope of the weapon, and why Israeli officials consider it a “game changer,” has remained largely outside of the debate.
The Syrian government calls the system “defensive” and says it is meant to protect Syria from air attacks. Israeli officials argue that the weapon could easily turn offensive, if Syria’s military chooses to launch it against Israeli aircraft that fly within a few hundred miles of the Syrian border.
Most sources on the S-300 system say it’s designed to shoot down aircraft and missiles within 150 kilometers, about 90 miles. But Israeli defense officials insist the actual range is greater – 200 kilometers, or 125 miles. Given Israel’s small airspace and the trajectory most Israeli planes take when flying in and out of the country through Ben Gurion, Israel’s international airport near the urban center of Tel Aviv, the longer range would place most aircraft within range.
The system can launch six missiles at once and engage 12 targets simultaneously, at both high and low altitude. Weapons experts in Russia have said that the missile interceptors can outmaneuver many modern jets including the F-15s and F-16s currently being used by the Israeli air force.
The exact details of the S-300 system being sold to Syria have never been made public. Since it first came into service in the mid-1980s, the S-300 has been upgraded dozens of times and now comes with a variety of missiles and launchers.
“The S-300 is a very complicated system and we still don’t know what elements of this system are being offered to Syria. So a lot of the speculation of details over what it can and can’t do is really just speculation,” said Yiftah Shapir, head of the Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank in Tel Aviv.
Syria already has the S-200 system, which has a range of up to 60 miles, though with far less sophisticated machinery. Shapir said that what the S-300 adds to Syria’s arsenal is an ability to keep unwanted planes out of Syria’s airspace as well as Lebanon’s.
“The thing that this will definitely give Assad that he doesn’t currently have is the ability to stop outside involvement in Syria,” Shapir said. “He can ensure that his airspace stays free of U.S. or Turkish planes that might want to get involved. Basically he is trying to make sure that everything that happened to (former Libyan leader Moammar) Gadhafi does not happen to him.”
He pointed out that the timelines and expected delivery dates for the S-300 are impossible to confirm, but that what sounded most plausible was that it would take up to a year to deliver the system and set it up.
“In the beginning it will probably be the Russians who are operating the system. So there is not really any chance that it will be turned into an attack system as long as it is operated by the Russians,” he said.
Beyond worries that the system could be turned on planes flying in Israeli airspace, Israeli officials say they are concerned that Iran or the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon will get their hands on the weapon.
“Maybe, because of the disorder in Syria, of the very heavy dependence of Syria on the Iranians’ assistance, some of those weapons might unfortunately find their way to the Iranians. This is very bad, and against the weapons embargo on Iran,” Steinitz, the intelligence minister, said at a recent conference in Jerusalem. Israel, he said, “doesn’t understand Russia’s position” on the S-300. He hoped Israel “still has room to convince Russia on this matter.”
In briefings for reporters conducted on the condition that their names be withheld, Israeli officials have said that they had tried to bring a great deal of pressure on Russia not to move forward with the deal.
“They could find a way to delay or to deliver a less sophisticated system than what the Syrians want,” said one Israeli official. “There are a lot of options on the table and a lot of incentives we can give the Russians not to go forward with this very dangerous arms transfer.”
The official noted that in the past, Israel had persuaded Russia to renege on a pledge to provide Iran with the S-300 system by offering a quid-pro-quo deal: Israel would stop supplying arms to Russia’s neighbor, Georgia.
“Diplomacy is complicated and it takes time, but nothing is ever a done deal until the weapon is on the ground,” he said.
UPDATE: The ninth paragaph of this story has been revised to correctly identify the jet fighters Israel flies.