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Russian Air Defense Boost to Syria Seen Unlikely to Shield Iran’s Forces from Israel


A Russian-made S-300 air defense system, left, is on display for the annual Defense Week, marking the 37th anniversary of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, at Baharestan Sq. in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.

Israel is expressing confidence that it can pursue attacks on Iran’s forces in Syria even after Iranian partner Russia transferred an advanced air defense system to Syrian territory earlier this month.

In a recent interview with VOA Persian in Jerusalem, Israeli Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren said Russia’s transfer of the S-300 system “will pose a challenge, but not an insurmountable challenge.”

Israeli Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren speaks to VOA Persian at his office in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, on October 10, 2018.
Israeli Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren speaks to VOA Persian at his office in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, on October 10, 2018.

“Israel has been overcoming such challenges since the day of its creation in 1948,” Oren said. “We will overcome this one as well, if we are forced to do so.”

Speaking separately to VOA Persian in Tel Aviv, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is part of an 11-member Security Cabinet, reacted to the S-300 move by saying Israel will not allow Iran, its main regional rival, to build a stronghold in Syria, adjacent to Israeli territory.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett talks to VOA Persian at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies on October 8, 2018.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett talks to VOA Persian at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies on October 8, 2018.

“We are going to fight to defend Israeli citizens, just as Iran would do if an enemy would create a big build-up on its borders. Just put yourself in our shoes,” Bennett said.

Russia says it delivered the S-300 system to its regional ally Syria on October 1, in response to a September 17 incident in which Syrian forces accidentally downed a Russian surveillance plane using a less-advanced S-200 system as they responded to an Israeli air strike. Israel said its warplanes had struck Syrian-allied Iranian military targets and returned to Israeli airspace before Syrian forces carried out what it described as “indiscriminate” fire that downed the Russian plane. Moscow accused Israel of creating a “dangerous” situation leading up to the incident.

Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani described the S-300 transfer as a blow to Israel’s years-long campaign of air strikes on Iran’s forces and suspected weapons shipments to Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in Syria. The Israeli military said last month that it had struck 202 targets in Syria since 2017.

“I don’t think that the Israelis are able to take a serious step (after the S-300 transfer),” Larijani said, in an October 9 interview with the Russian TV channel RT’s Arabic service in Turkey.

But Iran has little cause to celebrate the Russian move, according to Iranian American analyst Nader Uskowi, a former senior civilian advisor to the U.S. military’s Central Command. Speaking at an October 17 panel discussion at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Nader said Iran is “very surprised” that Russia has not used its most advanced S-400 air defense system in Syria to challenge Israeli strikes on Iranian positions there in recent years. “Russia does not see itself as an enemy of Israel. Iran does,” Nader said. “So Iranians are not counting on Russia to go all the way in alignment with their policy.”

Israel’s former chief of military intelligence Amos Yadlin told VOA Persian in a recent interview in Tel Aviv that Iran cannot count on its forces being protected by the newly-installed S-300 batteries in Syria, either. Russian officials have said those batteries will be operated by Russian forces as they train their Syrian allies to use the system in the coming months. They also have said the S-300 transfer is primarily meant to ensure the safety of Russian aircraft and personnel operating in the area.

Amos Yadlin, executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and former chief of Israeli military intelligence, speaks to VOA Persian in Tel Aviv on October 9, 2018.
Amos Yadlin, executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and former chief of Israeli military intelligence, speaks to VOA Persian in Tel Aviv on October 9, 2018.

“I don’t think the Russians want to challenge the Israeli air force, which is very capable,” said Yadlin, who serves as executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “And the Russian strategic goal is to stabilize Syria. The worst scenario that Russia can see is more instability. So from what I know of how the leaders in Moscow are thinking, they will not allow their military to fire at Israelis.”

Israeli Deputy Minister Oren said the Israeli and Russian militaries have been in daily contact at the level of deputy chiefs of staff to try to avoid confrontations between their forces. “We will continue to do our uppermost to prevent that,” he said. “We have no interest whatsoever in a military confrontation with Russia.”

Yadlin said Israel would face a challenge if and when Russia were to allow Syrian forces to fully operate the S-300 system, a move that would improve the capabilities of Syria’s air defenses. But, he said that challenge would be mitigated by the age of the system, first deployed by the Soviet Union in 1978.

“S-300 is not very advanced. I was chief of intelligence for the air force in the late 1990s. At that time, it was called SA-20,” Yadlin said. “So we know how to deal with it. And if they (use it to) fire at the Israeli air force now, I guess these batteries will be destroyed.”

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.

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