The Middle East Channel

Why Russia’s guns won’t save Assad

Russia's decision to furnish Syria with its advanced S-300 missile defense system has sparked a wave of commentary on how the transfer will affect the Syrian government's military posture and staying power. Israel seems to be doing everything it can to convince Moscow not to go through with the promised delivery. But Russian leaders seem adamant, describing the goal of the transfer unambiguously: to deter foreign intervention, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments illustrated on June 20.

Many analysts seem to have bought Russia's logic, with recent assessments highlighting the "game-changing" nature of the strategic weapons' transfer. Some contended that S-300 batteries would "alter the balance of power" in the region and make intervention "extremely difficult." Others noted that the system's ability to hit targets in Israel and in other countries allied to the United States in the region increases the likelihood that "regional war" might erupt. 

Despite these prognostications, there are four reasons why the potential transfer of the S-300 is unlikely to significantly challenge U.S. capabilities to decisively intervene by air in Syria. Furthermore, the argument that the system's deployment by itself automatically contributes to greater regional instability, when weighed against evidence of the possession by other Middle Eastern countries of similar weapons systems and more destabilizing weapons of mass destruction, holds no water whatsoever.

First, although the United States has not faced the S-300 in combat, a host of its allies -- including Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovakia -- currently use variants of the S-300 system. Through its alliances, the United States has enjoyed access to these systems and has gathered data, which could facilitate the development of countermeasures. As recently as 2012, NATO carried out a training exercise that tested the ability of various fighter aircraft to carry out missile hunting operations against Slovakia's S-300 PMU, one of the more recent variants of the S-300 system.

Other U.S. allies have engaged in their own intelligence-gathering efforts on the S-300 to ascertain system vulnerabilities and develop countermeasures, the results of which they most likely shared with their U.S. counterparts. In 2008, Israel conducted joint exercises with Greece to gather intelligence on its more modern S-300PMU-1 system, the second-most recent S-300 iteration. According to award-winning investigative author Edwin Black, the exercise showed that "a 1400 km distance [about 870 miles] could be negotiated with Israeli aircraft remaining aloft and effective." In turn, the Israeli Air Force (IAF), along with Israeli defense companies, began developing electronic countermeasures and decoys to hedge against the system's capabilities. Even today, Israeli defense officials acknowledge that while the S-300 would pose problems it would not be the game-changer that some analysts have described. IAF Colonel Zvika Haimovich recently told Reuters, "Though it would impinge on our operations, we are capable of overcoming it."

Second, a system with the technical complexity of the S-300 would prove exceedingly difficult for the Syrian military to operate. Personnel would require months of training to operate and maintain the S-300 -- by some estimates, almost a year -- before they could reliably deploy it. By then, sustaining a robust air defense could very well be the last concern of a regime fighting to keep control on the ground. Training personnel and developing facilities to operate and potentially repair the S-300s would expend precious troops and resources and still leave the systems vulnerable to ground attack by rebel forces, as much of the rest of Syria's air defenses have been for the past two years. Furthermore, to maximize the S-300's capabilities, the Syrian military would need to integrate the system into its overall air defense network so that each of its missile batteries engage the most appropriate targets. According to IHS Jane's, doing this would require additional command and control hardware -- such as the Baikal-1-- which would entail further time for training and deployment of the S-300. Thus, the likelihood and payoff of a quick S-300 deployment seem small.

Third, recent analyses have inflated the vulnerability of aircraft to S-300 systems. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, for example, declared that the S-300 could target aircraft about 185 miles away, thus rendering vulnerable aircraft in Israeli airspace. Others, like Anthony Cordesman, have posited more reasonably that the maximum range is closer to about 95 miles. But what many analysts seem to have missed is that the S-300 does not detect all aircraft uniformly. The range at which the system would detect U.S.-Israeli aircraft is not only a function of the S-300's capabilities, but the stealth profile and altitude of the aircraft being flown. Highly stealthy aircraft, like the U.S. F-22A, could relatively safely penetrate much further into Syrian airspace than other fighter jets like the F-16. And the S-300 would detect these aircraft at even smaller ranges if they are flown at low altitudes. While the S-300 can be outfitted with low-altitude radars, deployment of this component in an S-300 battery greatly limits the system's mobility. Thus, any battery that uses the component becomes more vulnerable to strikes. 

What's more, the increased ranges of the S-300 are somewhat offset by stand-off missiles like the U.S. Air Force's JASSM-ER missile, a stealthy, highly-accurate cruise missile which pilots can launch 575 miles from a target. The JASSM-ER flies at very low altitudes, enabling it to evade advanced systems like the S-300 until within several miles of the radar. Stand-off strike missiles like the JASSM-ER, especially when launched in large numbers, could overcome the defensive advantages provided by the S-300.

Fourth, despite the range of the S-300, the Assad regime is unlikely to unilaterally shoot down U.S. aircraft outside of Syrian airspace. While the regime was accused of doing precisely this to a Turkish warplane in June 2012, it also saw the grave risks of such provocations. The Turkish government strongly considered a military response, forcing Assad to confess that he regretted the decision to shoot down the aircraft. As the incident illustrated, any future provocations would provide greater impetus for an intervention, which the regime is desperately trying to prevent. Indeed, threats of retaliation notwithstanding, Syria failed to respond to three covert air attacks on weapons shipments by Israel this year. If the Assad regime were to sanction the use of the S-300, it would be in the context of a clear decision by the United States and the West to intervene militarily in Syria (although such a decision may not be made public to increase the intervention's chances of success). Under these circumstances, as previously mentioned, U.S. forces would be capable of neutralizing the S-300 threat.

So if the S-300 is unlikely to deter military intervention in Syria, then why is Russia expending political capital on this transfer? As the world's second-largest arms exporter, foreign military sales contribute over $14 billion to Russia's economy. Global focus on the Syrian conflict provides a useful opportunity to showcase one of Russia's most advanced and widely exported military products, no less in a region home to the world's largest arms importers. In addition, Russian leaders may be using the sale as part of a broader strategy to reassert itself in the Middle East. U.S. policymakers shouldn't find this surprising, as Russia pursued similar objectives when it declared its intention to transfer the S-300 to Iran. According to Reuters, leaked diplomatic cables revealed that Russian officials had no intention of going through with the transfer. Instead, in 2010, Russia backed out of the agreement in exchange for several Israeli surveillance drones and guarantees from Israel to withhold arms from Georgia.

One caveat, however, is in order. If Russia does go ahead with its S-300 sale to Assad, it may also choose to send Russian personnel to man and train Syrian forces to use the system in the early months following the transfer. Under these circumstances, a decision to strike the S-300 batteries could be greatly complicated by the risk of killing Russian personnel. The military feasibility of counter-air operations in Syria still would not change, but the broader strategic costs certainly would. The death of Russian soldiers on Syrian territory by Western militaries would not be taken lightly by Moscow and could very well cause an international diplomacy crisis.

To be sure, acquisition of the S-300 would represent a drastic upgrade for a dense but aging Syrian air defense system. Robert Hewson accurately, if inadvertently, describes the shortcomings of recent analyses of the S-300 threat when he acknowledges, "If your plan is to waltz into Syrian airspace and start bombing things this is a big wrinkle." And Hewson is right to assert that this would limit the ability of aircraft to "roam around Syrian airspace with impunity." But this is an unreasonable standard by which to assess the feasibility of future contingencies in Syria. Certainly acquisition of the S-300 would necessitate some retooling of current plans for military action. But it would not prohibit and is unlikely to make significantly more costly any future air campaign in the area.

That Russia's potential supply of advanced missile defenses to Syria is no panacea to Assad should not automatically lead to the endorsement of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone, or any of the other direct military intervention options being advocated elsewhere. Many U.S. analysts have made sensible arguments about the risks that would entail any direct military intervention in Syria. But the claim that the S-300 would prohibit or make very costly any future air campaigns in Syria simply doesn't pass the sniff test. Indeed, such arguments can generate the impression of a closing window of opportunity and thus bolster the case for speedy military action. Other political and security dynamics on the ground may evolve in ways that make the case for intervention more or less appealing, but the country's current or future air defenses are unlikely to be one of them.

Joseph Singh is a research assistant at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. Bilal Y. Saab is the executive director and head of research of INEGMA North America.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Palestinians call for guarantees before a return to talks

Palestinian leaders have not approved U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's plan for reigniting peace talks with Israel despite Arab League support for the formula. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with leaders from his Fattah Party and senior Palestinian Liberation Organization officials on Thursday to discuss the resumption of peace talks. Several Palestinian leaders said Kerry's proposal was insufficient because it did not require an Israeli settlement freeze or that negotiations be based on the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments. They, however, did not close the door on talks and are drafting a formal reply to Kerry requesting specific guarantees, in writing or expressed publicly, including: the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, an Israeli settlement freeze over the course of the talks, and a specified time limit for negotiations. The meeting came a day after the Arab League announced its support for Kerry's formula. Kerry will travel to Ramallah Friday to meet with Abbas, after holding meetings in the morning with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. The U.S. State Department said there will be no announcement yet on the resumption of talks, however U.S. officials said the holdup is temporary. Meanwhile, Israel has maintained there should be no preconditions for negotiations.

Syria

Kurdish and Islamist opposition fighters clashed in several areas of Syria Thursday, showing increased infighting within the rebel lines. The heightened violence between the groups has come a day after fighters from the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) seized the town of Ras al-Ain, on Syria's border with Turkey, from Islamist groups. Additionally, there have been reports of a standoff between Kurdish forces and the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra near the Tel Abyad border crossing between Turkey and the northern Raqqa province. On Friday, the PYD announced plans to set up an independent council to exercise authority over Kurdish regions until the Syrian civil war has ended. Head of the PYD, Saleh Muslim, said, "This is not a call for separation it is just that for a year now we have been on our own in our own territories and people have needs, they want some kind of administration to run their issues." Meanwhile, the Syrian government has given in to a rebel demand releasing 23 women prisoners, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In exchange, Syrian rebels are expected to release several Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who they have held since May 2012.

Headlines

  • Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour delivered his first address stressing a commitment to security and stability, meanwhile thousands of pro-Morsi protesters are rallying Friday in Cairo.
  • A bombing inside the Sunni Abu Bakr al-Sadiq mosque in the Iraqi town of Wajihiya in Diyala province has killed at least 20 people on Friday.
  • Lebanese authorities have said there was no political motive behind Wednesday's killing of pro-Assad commentator Mohammed Darrar Jammo, and have arrested his wife along with her brother and nephew.
  • Panamanian authorities have detained Ex-CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady who was convicted by Italy in absentia for his involvement in the abduction of an Egyptian cleric suspected of terrorism.

Arguments and Analysis

'The GCC's Non-Strategy in Syria' (Faysal Itani, The Atlantic Council)

"In response to Hezbollah's deepening role in the Syrian civil war, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pledged in June to target Hezbollah loyalists and their financial and commercial interests in the Gulf. Presumably, the GCC action, which will overwhelmingly affect Hezbollah's Lebanese Shia support base, aims to convince them that its behavior in Syria is harming their interests, thereby turning them against the party. Several dozen Shia have been deported from Saudi Arabia and Qatar alone since the statement was made. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese live and work in the Gulf, and many others in Lebanon depend on remittances from them. The GCC's most effective tools against foreigners are therefore withholding work visas and residencies from those seeking work in the Gulf, or deporting expatriates. The monarchies also realize that targeting the Lebanese diaspora and remittances threatens Lebanon's economy, and can ostensibly be used to pressure the Lebanese government to take action against Hezbollah.

The GCC's actions fit a historical pattern of Sunni leaders' suspicion towards Shia politics in general, particularly the Lebanese Shia, who have been targeted in the past for their alleged pro-Hezbollah sympathies. A spokesman for Lebanese Shia living in GCC countries claims the United Arab Emirates alone has expelled more than 400 Lebanese Shia families since 2009 for unspecified security reasons. Prominent Lebanese businessmen with extensive interests and employees in the GCC (and no sympathy for Hezbollah) report serious difficulty in obtaining work permits for Shia workers. Lebanese have been interrogated and turned away upon entry to Bahrain, following the outbreak of unrest among its own Shia population, whom the monarchy accuses of collaborating with Hezbollah and its patron Iran. All of this points to much more divisive posturing related to the Sunni-Shia divide and further poisons relations between the two communities. The impact is felt far beyond the individuals and families affected; these actions carry weight and a symbolic message that perpetuates a negative sectarian narrative."

'Trouble on the Border' (Raed El Hamed, Sada)

"Jabhat al-Nusra argued in one of its statements that ‘fighting against the Shiite Iraqi government in Baghdad is a jihad and sacred religious duty in order to liberate it from the Magi [a derogatory term for Iranians and Shiites].' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on April 9, 2013 announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and that Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, was actually ‘one of the Islamic State of Iraq's soldiers, whom we assigned for action in Syria.' Only two days later, Jabhat al-Nusra implicitly rejected this claim by announcing its loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the global al-Qaeda, who intervened to break up the dispute between the two. However, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rejected al-Zawahiri's proposal that the merger be aborted and that he 'continue to work in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq while Jabhat al-Nusra would be considered an independent branch of al-Qaeda, following the General Command,' according to a message televised by al-Jazeera and attributed to al-Zawahiri. In the message, al-Zawahiri called for a stop to 'the debate over this disagreement,' since it could portend infighting between some of the most powerful and effective armed groups fighting against the Assad regime.

Sunnis in Iraq see the weapons captured by the Free Syrian Army and other rebel factions, especially Jabhat al-Nusra, in the border areas as a strategic reserve for them, safe from confiscation by Iraqi troops. However, if the Assad regime falls, or the situation in Iraq spirals out of control, the arms stored in Syria would rapidly pour across the border into Iraq. Likewise, seasoned Iraqi fighters would return from Syria, having acquired new experience in fighting local armies in urban warfare. Those fighters would battle the Iraqi government to curb Iranian influence in Iraq and the region at large, possibly supported by powers that share their goal including the US, Turkey, and the Gulf States. Free Syrian Army veterans and other Syrian and foreign fighters could also pour into Iraq, accompanied by a huge arms flow, a possibility recognized by both Islamist and non-Islamist leaders within the Syrian opposition."

'Love in the Syrian Revolution' (Wendy Pearlman, The Huffington Post)

"After Hamzeh fled Syria for the second time, he dedicated himself to activism for human rights in the country of his birth. His work ranged from a new career in journalism, to filing a suit against Bashar al-Assad in the International Criminal Court. Yet his work was stymied by the fear that gripped his compatriots. When Hamzeh attempted to document the testimonials of victims of regime violence, he found that they were too afraid to speak.

His own colleagues became cynical. 'Don't waste your time,' one fellow activist told him in late 2010. 'The Syrian people have given up. The country will never change.'

Just a few days later, change began. A popular revolt swelled in Tunisia, and another in Egypt. One-by-one, untouchable dictators were toppled by the will of people on the streets.

Hamzeh was alight with the thrill of new possibilities. Visiting relatives in the United States at the time, he transformed the house into an activist headquarters. Phones rang nonstop and multiple television channels broadcast updates all day and night. Soon, the whole family was writing petitions and uploading video appeals to plea for a revolution in Syria, too. 'Please have hope,' Hamzeh's teenage niece urged in a video clip that became a YouTube sensation. 'We can end the Assad dictatorship. May justice prevail.' Inside Syria, handfuls of brave protestors mounted scattered protests. Yet armed police suppressed one after another, and most people stayed home. Other Arab countries joked that Syrians were only brave in the historical soap operas that they produced, which romanticized fighters from a long-gone age."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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