Recently, PM Netanyahu traveled to the Kremlin to try to talk Russian President Vladimir Putin out of sending advanced weapons, including the S-300 air defense system, to Syria.
Although I wasn’t there, my guess was that Netanyahu said something like, “don’t do this, because if you do we will have to bomb them.” In particular, the S-300 would make it much harder for Israel to interdict arms transfers to Hizballah, or prevent possible chemical attacks against Israel by Syrian rebels or Hizballah, if they should get control of some of Assad’s arsenal.
According to American officials, Netanyahu’s arguments were not successful:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute trip to Russia on Tuesday apparently did not change the Russians’ intentions to also deliver the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria. According to the [Wall St.] Journal, U.S. officials believe that Russia is moving more quickly than previously thought to deliver S-300 surface-to-air defense systems to Syria. U.S. officials told the paper that the S-300 system, which is capable of shooting down guided missiles and could make it more risky for any warplanes to enter Syrian airspace, could leave Russia for Syrian port of Tartus by the end of May.
Together, the S-300 anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, and the Yakhont anti-ship system, would pose a formidable threat to any outside intervention in Syria, based on the international Libya model. The anti-ship missiles would be a serious threat to the Israeli navy, as well as the facilities above Israel’s newfound underwater gas reserves. The S-300 could threaten Israeli military and civilian aircraft flying Israeli airspace, and not just over Lebanese and Syrian airspace.
Providing weapons like this to the unstable Syrian regime (or even a stable one) is remarkably irresponsible; but then, this is Putin. My guess is that Putin countered with threats of his own if Israel interferes with Russian actions.
Dore Gold explains which weapons Israel considers ‘game changers’ that it cannot permit to fall into the hands of Hizballah:
a. Chemical weapons.
b. Iranian surface-to-surface missiles equipped with heavy warheads, like the Fateh 110, which has a highly destructive 600 kg. warhead as compared to the 30 kg. warhead on Hizbullah’s Katyusha rockets that it launched against Israel in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
c. Long-range anti-aircraft missiles, like the Russian-manufactured SA-17, which can limit the freedom of action of the Israeli Air Force if deployed by Hizbullah in southern Lebanon. The SA-17 uses a mobile launcher. Israeli diplomacy has been especially concerned with the Russian sale of even more robust S-300 anti-aircraft missiles by Russia to Syria, though there are no indications that Hizbullah is a potential recipient of this system.
d. Long-range anti-ship missiles, like the Russian supersonic Yakhont cruise missile, that has a range of 300 km. and can strike at Israeli offshore gas rigs in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia recently sent a shipment of the missiles which will be added to an initial inventory of 72 missiles received first in 2011.
If Iran manages to prop up Assad at the price of turning Syria into a wholly-owned satrapy, then I’m not sure that it would be much better than if Hizballah itself had the weapons, from an Israeli point of view. Israel’s deterrence will be markedly weakened if the decision to use such weapons is taken out of the hands of a semi-autonomous Syrian regime and placed in Iran.
What motivates the Russians?
I think they have decided correctly that control of the Muslim Middle East hangs in the balance, with the main players in the struggle being Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni elements, and Turkey. I think they have decided that the ‘strong horse’ is Iran and the Shiites. In addition, Russia faces challenges from Sunni Islamists within Russia itself and in Muslim states bordering it.
Russia has also always been unhappy with a Western-aligned nuclear power like Israel so close by. In fact some historians have suggested that the Soviets provoked Syria and Egypt to make war on Israel in 1967 in order to justify a strike on Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona. Israel is also shaping up to be a future rival to Russian domination of the natural gas supply to Europe. An Iranian victory — and incidentally the end of the Jewish state — would be just fine for them.
Ugly? You bet. The forces opposing the Iran-Russia axis include the hostile and economically devastated Egypt, the super-extreme Sunni Salafists (some allied with al-Qaeda), the neo-Ottoman Islamist Turkish regime, Saudi Arabia — and the United States, which may or may not still be a formidable military power, but certainly does not appear to have the resolve to confront Iran, not to mention Russia.
But Israel has survived, even thrived, against similar odds before.