Russia moves to 'clip Israel's wings' over Syria
Russian air defences will complicate Syria's crowded skies
Syria’s shooting down in error of a Russian plane last week highlighted the chaotic picture in the war-torn country’s crowded airspace. Things are about to get even more complicated.
Military aircraft from Syria, Russia, Israel, the United States jostle for space while flying conflicting missions, and some airlines still ply commercial passenger routes over the country. And with Russia now saying it will supply Damascus with radar jamming technology and sophisticated air defences, the situation in the sky above Syria could become more dangerous.
Until recently, Russia, Israel and the United States have managed to avoid major incidents in Syrian airspace. But the fallout from the death of 15 Russian airmen by a Syrian-fired missile last Monday may yet test that relative calm.
The incident occurred when Israeli F-16 planes carried out a strike against Syrian government targets linked to Iranian interests in Latakia, as they have done previously. This time, however, a Russian surveillance plane got caught in the middle and was shot down by Syrian air defences.
Moscow said the F-16s had used the Russian plane as “cover,” and put the blame squarely on Israel. It represented the worst friendly fire incident between the two allies since Russia first intervened on behalf of President Bashar Al Assad in 2015, and highlighted the dangers in so many uncoordinated forces operating in the same space.
In response to the incident, Russia looks set to bolster Syrian air defences in such a way that could restrain Israeli strikes.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Monday that Russia would be supplying the Syrian army with the sophisticated S-300 air defence system, in addition to jamming radars of nearby warplanes.
"In regions near Syria over the Mediterranean Sea, there will be radio-electronic suppression of satellite navigation, on-board radar systems and communication systems of military aviation attacking objects on Syrian territory," Mr Shoigu said.
"We are convinced that the implementation of these measures will cool hotheads and prevent ill-considered actions threatening our servicemen. Otherwise we will have to respond in line with the current situation," he added.
While Israel is no friend of Russia’s ally President Assad, it retains mostly cordial relations with Moscow. The two countries have developed close military and energy ties over the past decade.
Israel has largely been given a free reign by Moscow to carry out attacks in Syria, launching more than 200 strikes against Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah targets there over the past year-and-a-half.
But analysts believe Russia’s latest move is a pointed message to Israel that this arrangement is not unconditional.
“The Russian air defenses are a useful tool for Putin to remind Netanyahu that Russia and not Israel is the greater power in Syria,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“Russia is telling the Israelis that Israel's blank cheque to strike Iran at will in Syria has been withdrawn for the time being, and that Israel needs to get the permission of Russia if it wants to conduct air raids in Assad's domain. In effect, Russia is trying to clip Israel's wings,” he added.
Israel had managed to convince Moscow to stall delivery of the S-300 to Syria for years, arguing it would threaten its ability to strike at Iranian interests.
Responding to the air defence delivery on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed no sign of letting up the pace of attacks.
"We will continue to act to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and we will continue the military coordination between the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and the Russian army," he said.
The Russian Hmeimim air base in Latakia is home to an impressive array of Russian military aircraft — more than 30 jets and planes, among them a number of fifth generation stealth Su-57s. Russia’s area of operation today is restricted to the last major rebel-held province of Idlib.
The US, meanwhile, is focused on eastern Syria — where it is fighting one of the last ISIS pockets in the country. The two powers have managed to stay out of each other’s way due to an effective deconfliction channel, and geographical distance. Israel’s area of operations are slightly more complicated, and depend on entirely on the movement of Iran and its allies in Syria.
While the new air defence system is unlikely to present a major problem for the US, France or UK — which have carried out attacks against Syrian government targets before in response to chemical weapons use — it does add another element to an already complex web of interests and military hardware poised to cause a major international incident at the touch of a button.
“What is unusual for the Syrian airspace is that every now and then, combat aircraft from different countries, not operating under the same coordination and possibly using different procedures and rules of engagement, operate in proximity one another and to civilian aircraft,” said David Cenciotti, editor at TheAviationist.com, which monitors civilian and military aircraft.
“Deconfliction hotlines have helped avoiding direct clashes, but the risk of accidents remains,” Mr Cenciotti added.
At the exact time the Russian plane was shot down, the Russian defence ministry said three civilian aircraft were passing through Syrian airspace, the closest of which was Middle East Airlines flight 430, which flies between Beirut and Dubai. It was a few hundred kilometers away, over the Syria-Jordan border.