With Syria in shambles after nearly a decade of civil war, the country has turned into an arena where competing forces in the Middle East are vying for power. Syria has become the battleground for a proxy war between Israel and Iran with tensions flaring over the past year. These tensions came to a climax this September.
Here are the five major players in the September crisis:
- Iran. Seizing upon the political void caused by the civil war, Iran has attempted to exert influence against its Sunni neighbors and against the Jewish state. Currently, Iran has 70,000 troops, 250,000 paid militiamen, and 1,000 members of its elite Revolutionary Guard Corp stationed in Syria, in addition to over thirteen military bases.
- Hezbollah. While it would be strategically unfeasible for Iran to wage war against Israel directly due to its distance and outdated military, Iran fights Israel through its military proxy, Hezbollah. Founded by Shiite militants during the Israel-Lebanon War, Hezbollah uses the instability in Syria to funnel funds and arms from Iran in order to wage proxy war. Currently, Hezbollah has several thousand militants in Syria.
- Israel. With Iran regularly calling for the destruction of Israel, Israel views Iran as its greatest threat. Since the implementation of the Iran deal, Israel has taken a more active role in limiting Iran’s influence in neighboring Syria and in stopping the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. This course of action has included over 200 airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria over the past 18 months.
- Russia. Following the rebel takeover of Idlib province in 2015, Syria issued a formal request for Russian intervention. Russia has 48,000 troops in Syria and has conducted over 70,000 airstrikes since 2015.
- Syria’s Assad Regime. Since 1948, Syria has been in a state of war with Israel and, accordingly, sees Israel’s actions against Iran in Syria as a violation of its sovereignty. In contrast, Syria views Iranian and Russian servicemen as deployed to Syria on legitimate grounds and present in an advisory capacity.
These five players clashed on September 17 when their concurrent action in Syria led to disaster. Early in the day, four Israeli F-16 fighter jets approached the Syrian city of Latakia from the Mediterranean coast on a combat mission to destroy Iranian assets in the city. Satellite imagery from 2017 had revealed the construction of an Iranian Scud missile factory adjacent to Latakia. Using medium-range standoff missiles, the Israeli F-16s successfully destroyed a munition warehouse present at the complex, confirmed by satellite operator ImageSat. Following the airstrike, Syrian S-200 anti-aircraft batteries targeted the Israeli jets. Data retrieved from a Russian radar system deployed in nearby Khmeimim airbase shows the Israeli F-16s changing course. This, in turn, caused the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles to target a nearby Russian Il-20 reconssousince plane. The Syrian S-200 missiles downed the Il-20 plane, killing all 15 Russian troops on board.
Though the Syrian battery shot down the Il-20, Russia holds Israel responsible for the death of its 15 soldiers. As Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov puts it, “today’s data does not suggest but prove that the blame for the tragic downing of the Russian IL-20 airplane lies entirely with the Israeli Air Force.” Konashenkov asserts that Israel was “de facto using the larger Il-20 as cover” and, for this reason, Israel is entirely responsible. While this scenario is possible, Israel offers an opposing account of the incident, asserting that the Israeli F-16s returned to the Mediterranean following the airstrike. In the formal report issued to Russia, Israel asserts that Syria’s 1960s era S-200 battery continued to “fire dozens of missiles indiscriminately for 40 minutes following the Israeli strike.”
Russia’s reaction goes further than a formal rebuke. In response to Syrian missiles downing their Il-20 plane, Russia agreed to transfer their advanced S-300 air defense system to the Assad regime. The S-300 is one of the world’s most advanced anti-aircraft system, produced by Russia since the 1970s. With a range of 200 kilometers, the S-300 can track hundreds of targets simultaneously and engage up to 12 at the same time. For this reason, Israel has worked for years to prevent Syria from obtaining this system. Analysts at the Jerusalem Post assert that the S-300 would upend Israel’s containment of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and that it even has the range to down aircraft arriving at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. Israeli Major General Ido Nehushtan writes, “we need to make every effort to stop this system from getting to places where the IAD needs to operate.” Thus, it appears Russia is punishing Israel by disrupting their policy against Iran. This theory, though, is a based solely on reactions to the September 17 crisis. It does not take into account the dealings underway between Syria and Russia long before the Il-20 incident.
Examining the finances of the S-300 deal reveals a different picture of what happened as a result of the September 17 incident. A deal between Russia and Syria to sell the S-300 was already struck several years ago, according to Kan 11. Syria had transferred $1 billion to Russia for the S-300. The payment, however, was frozen due to Israeli pressure. After the Il-20 incident, the payment was released, with the four S-300 batteries delivered to Syria two weeks after the downing of the jet and eight to be delivered at a later date. From this, we see Russia has been waiting for the right moment when it could make the sale in a politically expedient way. “Through no fault of our own,” Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, stated, “the situation has changed.” Russia’s motives in playing the long game on the S-300 sale are not about the cash. As we saw in 2016 when Russia sold Iran an S-300 system, the sale shifts the paradigm between Russia, Iran, Israel, Syria, and Hezbollah. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin states that the deconfliction agreement, an understanding that allows Russia and Israel to operate independently in Syria, still stands, the practical effect on the situation could show otherwise. If Russia’s decision to blame Israel for Syria’s actions effectively stops Israel’s airstrikes on Iranian assets, this would demonstrate Russia’s determination that Iran should have a presence in Syria.
Will the S-300, in practice, deter Israel? Likely not. In 2015, the Israeli Air Force trained with the Greek military using the Greek S-300 system station in Crete. Russian military experts believe this training would be precisely what you need to study the system’s radar frequency, pattern, and reach, all factors that must be known to jam the S-300 signals. Further, Israel possesses nine operational F-35 stealth fighters that could avoid detection. Israel’s Army Radio reports that the Israeli Air Force has decided to increase use of the F-35s in light of the new situation. Not much, however, can be inferred about the potential success of this strategy since Israel’s use of F-35 fighters in Syria has been the first and only combat use of F-35s worldwide. These countermeasures explain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s determination to “continue to act in order to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.”
Regardless, Syria’s receival of the S-300 system from Russia has bolstered their hostilities toward Israel. After receiving the S-300, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem stressed that the systems will be used to respond to Israel threats. Speaking at the UN General Assembly, he further vowed to “liberate fully the occupied Syrian Golan,” a strategic position held by Israel since the 1967. Though Russia may have intended to shift the paradigm in the Middle East in response to the September 17 crisis, we will only see such an effect if Israel’s policy towards Syria in the long term is affected.