On the morning of April 14th a joint U.S., British and French missile strike was carried out against a number of Syrian government and military facilities across the country, an attack which has had widespread consequences for Western-Russian relations, the future of Syria’s internal conflict and perceptions of the Western bloc’s ability to project power across the Middle East.
The attack is also set to have significant consequences for Israel, Syria’s small neighbour which has itself often clashed with the Syria military and which welcomed and strongly supported Western military action against Damascus.
Israel’s own Air Force has frequently made incursions into Syrian territory, striking military facilities and attempting to weaken the country’s air defence network due to the threat it perceives from both the Syrian government and from its allies Iran and Hezbollah, which have deployed significant military assets to Syrian territory since the outbreak of war in the country in 2011.
They weakening of Syria’s armed forces, and by extension of the entire alliance, has been seen as a highly positive outcome by the Israeli military – particularly when achieved by Western military intervention rather than the deployment of Israeli’s own far scarcer assets.
While large scale missile strikes on Syria’s military facilities appears to benefit Israeli interests by weakening its adversaries, an analysis of both the outcome of the Western strikes and the potential retaliatory measures set to be taken by Russia’s own armed forces, which deemed the attack a violation of international law and act of aggression, could well indicate that the end result will be contrary to Israeli interests.
The Western powers reportedly launched 103 cruise missiles from naval and aerial assets, all positioned well beyond Syrian airspace, of which 71 were successfully intercepted by Syria’s surface to air missile network. With Syria’s air defences operating heavily upgraded but nevertheless dated missile platforms such as the S-125 and S-200 provided by the Soviet Union during the 1980s, such a high interception rate against some of the Western bloc’s most capable missiles, “nice new and smart” missiles in the words of U.S. President Donald Trump, amounted to a significant failure on the part of the Western powers.
This failure to project power successfully against a supposedly ‘obsolete’ missile defence network is set to curb the Western bloc’s enthusiasm for further intervention in the Middle East and further strikes – particularly against states with more sophisticated networks such as Iran and North Korea.
With Israel’s position in the Middle East fast deteriorating, unable to obtain sufficiently capable new fighters from the United States to suit its defence needs and seeing the capabilities of its potential adversaries fast growing, the country’s inability to count on further Western interventions in light of the failure of strikes on Syria is a significant blow to its position.
A second cause for major concern among Israel’s leadership which has emerged as a direct result of Western airstrikes on Syria has been Russia’s stated willingness to respond by supplying a number of states, namely Syria, Iran and North Korea, with more advanced air defence systems to further strengthen their networks.
Russia’s General Staff stated just hours after the Western missile strike: “A few years ago, we refused to supply S-300 air defence systems to Syria due to the request of some of our Western partners. Taking into account what happened, we consider it possible to return to this issue. And not only with regard to Syria, but with regard to other states.”
Alexander Sherin, first deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s lower house defence committee, similarly stated that in response to the Western attack on Syria Moscow should consider the delivery of more advanced air defence systems to Damascus, Tehran and Pyongyang to prevent further unilateral Western attacks. The deputy chairman further elaborated:
“It is necessary to consider not only deliveries of missile defence systems, but also deliveries accompanied by those people who can train the personnel of these countries, so that Syria, Iran and North Korea could deploy these systems, if they wanted.”
Israel has on a number of occasions seen its military aircraft successfully targeted and its missiles intercepted by Syria’s air defence forces, which since the outbreak of war in the country been extensively upgraded with assistance from North Korean specialists.
Much like the Western powers did in their own strike on Syria, Israeli aircraft have in recent months relied heavily on striking Syria from beyond its territory, most often from the airspace of neighbouring Lebanon, to ensure they remain beyond the range of the country’s air defence batteries. Israeli air to ground missiles fired from Lebanon have also frequently been intercepted, with an attack on a Syrian military facility near Damascus in December 2017 being largely blunted with 75% of the missiles neutralised.
The prospect of more advanced surface to air missile batteries being deployed by the Syrian Air Defence Forces is thus set to make attacks on the country, already difficult as they are, far harder still – perhaps too risky to even be attempted. Deployment of the S-300 or S-400 would allow Syria to target Israeli aircraft well beyond the country’s borders, including over Tel Aviv itself, which poses a significant threat to Israel’s ability to operate its Air Force against Damascus’ assets.
This would further shift the balance of power in the Middle East against Israel’s favour. The Times of Israel reported a statement by a high ranking member of the Israeli military’s General Staff which stated: “In our worst nightmares, we never dreamed we would have the S-400 system in our backyard with Syria.” An advanced variant of the S-300 platform such as the S-300PMU2 in Syrian hands could also have a similar effect.
Alongside the potential effects on the Israeli-Syrian balance of forces which delivery of new Russian surface to air missiles would have, Russia’s response to Western airstrikes on Damascus is also set to significantly weaken Israel’s position in regards to its main regional rival Iran.
While Russia’s arms deliveries are made with defence against Western attacks in mind, these weapons systems can just as easily be used against Israel’s own aerial assets. While Iran’s armed forces already field advanced S-300 surface to air missile systems, delivered by Russia in 2016, delivery of more modern systems such as the S-400 or BuK-M3 would make its airspace among the best defended in the world.
While Israel managed to derail the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs in 1981 and 2007 respectively by launching Operation Opera and Operation Outside the Box, delivery of the latest Russian air defence batteries as advocated by chairman Sherin would make an operation to neutralise Iranian military or nuclear facilities by either the Western bloc or Israel go from extremely difficult to near impossible. Under such protection, Iran could proceed with the development of ballistic missiles, the strengthening of its power projection assets across the Middle East, and even a the development of weapons of mass destruction should it choose to, without a significant threat of military action being taken against it.
Not only will Iran’s domestic facilities be safe under the protection of modern air defence systems, but Iranian assets deployed near Israel’s borders in Lebanon and Syria could also potentially receive protection from Syria’s own domestic air defence systems – further weakening the Israeli position vis a vis Iran. Mark Heller, principal research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, stated regarding the potentially serious implications this could have for Israeli security in regards to its ongoing conflict with Tehran:
“Israel is concerned that more effective Syrian air defenses built around advanced Russian equipment would limit Israel’s ability to operate against Iranian and (Iranian aligned militia) Hezbollah forces in Syria, which are part of Iran’s overall regional strategy, as well as against Syrian weapons of mass destruction facilities and supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
While gains made by Western airstrikes on Syria were negligible, the blowback from the attacks could well have catastrophic implications for Israel’s security. With the Western bloc likely less willing than ever to intervene against those it terms ‘bad actors’ in the Middle East in the attack’s aftermath, and with Syrian and possibly Iranian airspace set to become far more difficult to penetrate in the near future due to deliveries of more modern Russian air defence systems, the attack is set to both empower Israeli adversaries while almost completely eliminating prospects for military action against them. Tel Aviv’s already precarious security situation is thus set to become considerably worse.