Three consequent announcements made on 20, 22, and 25 July by the Russian Ministry of Defence about the successful interception of Israeli missiles in Syrian air space have prompted a heated debate among Mideast and Western observers. Why have the briefings of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation produced so much fuss?
On 29 July, The Times of Israel commented on the downing of Israeli missiles in Syria, suggesting that “Russia might be testing” Naftali Bennett’s new Israeli government which came to power on 13 June, and adding that there’s “no reason for panic.”
However, Israel Hayom warned that Moscow may very soon “clip Israel’s wings” in the Arab Republic. The media outlet pinned the blame for the supposed shift on the new Bennett government, arguing that it “is seen as weak, inexperienced, and lacking in intellectual depth” in contrast to the preceding administration of Benjamin Netanyahu.
For its part, Forbes presumed that the Russian MoD’s recent announcements could serve as a signal not only to the government of Bennett but also to the Biden administration, in order to negotiate “new and clearer parameters for deconfliction” in Syria.
The first news agency which raised the alarm over Russia’s alleged “change of heart” was Saudi Arabia’s international newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, based in London. Citing an unnamed “Russian official,” Al-Awsat made a number of claims concerning Moscow, Washington, and Tel-Aviv’ policies which have not been verified or confirmed by Russia, the US or Israel, notes Mark Sleboda, a US military veteran and international affairs and security analyst.
In particular, al-Awsat suggested that Russia had “enhanced” Syrian air defences and provided new equipment to the Syrian government forces. The apparent shift came after a deconfliction mechanism between Russia and Israel, established by Prime Minister Netanyahu, effectively ceased once Bennett assumed power in June 2021, Sleboda notes referring to Israeli sources quoted by Breaking Defence, a US digital military magazine.
“Previously the Russian military was usually given some brief advance notice of Israeli attacks to make sure Russian troops were not in harm’s way, although there were regular Russian Ministry of Defence complaints about the short time window provided, often only a few minutes,” the security analyst points out.
He does not rule out that Russian could have increased air defence support for Syria against Israeli airstrikes in order to “pressure the new Israeli government to restore this broken deconfliction mechanism” and/or “establish new more restrictive ‘rules of the game’ with the new Israeli government over Israeli attacks in Syria.”
Moscow has long criticised the Jewish state for air raids and strikes in the Syrian territory. On 8 July 2021, Russia, Iran, and Turkey called upon Israel to suspend the attacks on the Arab Republic. For its part, Israel argues that it targets the positions of Hezbollah, designated as the terrorist organisation by the Jewish state, and alleged Iranian installations.
At the same time, the security analyst rules out that the allegedly upgraded Syrian air defences send a warning signal to the US occupation forces:
“The Russian military goes to extreme lengths to deconflict military operations with the US and avoid any military confrontation that could result in direct conflict between the nuclear armed powers,” he stresses. “Unless US military forces directly attack a Russian military base in Syria, it is difficult to foresee any situation where Russian military would target American military missiles or aircraft.”
What’s Changed in Russia’s Reaction to Israeli Strikes?
One might wonder as to what was so special about the Russian MoD’s July announcements. Sleboda explains that first and foremost, the Russian MoD never commented on the Syrian Arab Army’s statements with regard to repelling Israeli attacks. The security analyst notes that under Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu “Russian military forces have maintained a strict hands-off policy towards Israeli actions in Syria and refrained from action in hope of avoiding a larger military conflagration.”
However, on 20 July, a Russian military official, Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit, the head of the Russian Military Reconciliation Centre in Syria, announced that on 19 July, four Israeli F-16 fighter jets fired eight guided missiles at targets in Syria’s Aleppo province, seven of which were destroyed by the Syrian air defences armed with Russian-made Pantsir (NATO name: SA-22 Greyhound) and Buk-M2E (NATO name: SA-17 Grizzly) systems.
On 22 July, two Israeli F-16s fired four guided missiles from Lebanese airspace at targets in Syria’s Homs province, all of which, according to Kulit, were intercepted by the Buk-M2E. On 25 July, two IAF F-16 jets fired two air-guided missiles at facilities in the settlement of Seidat-Zeinab, the Damascus governorate. Again, both rockets were shot down by the Buk-M2E.
Sleboda draws attention to the fact that the Buk-M2E, a medium-range advanced defence missile complex (ADMC) designed and manufactured by Almaz-Antey, appears to have been used for the first time against the Israeli rockets. Previously, Breaking Defence quoted Israeli sources who confirmed that the Buk-M2E had not been earlier used to intercept Israeli missiles. The magazine also suggested that the weapons were operated by Russian military personnel. Sleboda agrees that this could be the case. Furthermore, the successful interception of Israeli missiles by modern Russian-made weapons was repeated three times within a week, he highlights.
According to Sleboda, “if Russia continues to actively exert air defence in Syria against Israeli attacks, this will force Israel to exclusively use ever more stand-off weapons, such as longer range munitions, drones and cruise missiles, for its attacks, fired at a greater distance out of Lebanese or Jordanian airspace, out of US occupied Syrian airspace in the east or in the south over al-Tanf base, or out of the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.”
“Such attacks will also face much higher rates of interception and thus become much more expensive for the Israeli government and increasing risk of [further] tensions with Moscow,” he suggests.
New Iranian President
The security analyst doesn’t think that the apparent “shift” in Russia’s attitude to Israeli strikes could also be a signal to the new Iranian government of Ebrahim Raisi who was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei on 3 August.
Iran’s foreign strategy has long been determined by Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, while the country’s military operations are conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is directly subordinated to the Supreme Leader. Given this, Tehran’s political course is unlikely to see any changes, according to the military veteran.
However, “the very fact that a ‘hard-liner’ like Raisi… is viewed as supported by the Supreme Leader, may well denote a more active and aggressive foreign policy and military position being taken by the Supreme Leader and may well result in enhanced military support for Syria,” according to Sleboda.
Back in July 2020, Tehran and Damascus signed a comprehensive military, defence and security pact. The Raialyoum newspaper, cited by The Tehran Times, claimed that the new agreement would allow Iran to deploy “at least two types of its local-made air defense missile systems” to Syria, the Bavar-373 and Khordad-3. According to Forbes, these systems could help Iran create “formidable Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) air defence ‘bubbles’ covering strategically important areas” in Levant.
Asymmetric & Political Actions
Nevertheless, Sleboda believes that neither Moscow nor Tehran is going to sharply raise stakes in the region. According to him, “Russian and Iranian military strategy for the moment appears focused on consolidation of Syrian government authority, reconstruction, and development over the majority of Syria already back under its control.”
Instead of resorting to sabre-rattling, Russia and Iran “will likely continue to take asymmetric and political action to make life difficult and raise the costs for” foreign forces operating in the region without Damascus’ mandate, the US military veteran suggests.
“The hope is that in the long term the continued American and Turkish military occupations of Syria will eventually become economically and politically unpalatable at home,” he deems. “The Biden administration military withdrawal from Afghanistan and drawdown/force restructure in Iraq supports the idea of the effectiveness of this strategy over time. Eventually the Americans will get tired and their focus will turn elsewhere or inward, it is hoped.”