While the U.S. and the coalition against ISIS make attacks on targets in Iraq and Syria, there remains an uneasy relationship between Assad’s government and the U.S. While there has been some passive allowance of U.S. strikes against Assad’s enemies in Syria, a relationship between the two sides seem disjointed and non-productive. An error by either side could turn Syria’s advanced anti-aircraft systems against the solely air based assets used by the U.S. and its allies in its war against ISIS. The limited threat from ISIS comes from some shoulder launched missiles based on the SA-7 system and possibly some ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft gun systems. The real threat comes from Assad’s air defense network. Using mostly Russian systems, Syria’s air defense was designed to take on the Israeli Air Force, a modern air force that has similar capabilities to the coalition currently orchestrating its war using only air assets. The potential damage Assad could cause would be notable and could change the entire conflict in the region with a few well placed radars and missile batteries.
With the agreement to dissolve Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, the future order of the long range S-300 anti-aircraft and ballistic missile system has been stopped. The S-300 is likely the most advanced exported missile system in the world today, and if installed in eastern Syria would give Assad near complete control over the airspace in the region. The range of the S-300 would be able to cover over Syria’s borders in many cases, and would force a change in US policy in the current conflict. Syria was not able to obtain the complete system from Russia, mirroring a past cancelled delivery of the system in the region.
The S-300 system was the focus of great concern for many in the region when Russia and Iran signed an $800 million contract for the S-300 system in 2007. After a U.N. resolution against Iran, Russia would no longer sell the S-300 system to Iran, leading to a $4 billion claim due to Russia’s contract violation in the agreement. To mitigate the strategic loss of the system, Iran sought to create its own indigenous system while Russia offered a less capable S-300VM to compensate for the violation of the agreement. With Syria and Iran no longer having the opportunity at the S-300, the S-300VM might become the main export system to the region. Currently Egypt is seeking an agreement for the S-300VM, and Iran is still trying to get access to the initial S-300 system to protect against possible future air strikes.
The S-300VM may become the mainstay of Russian support to the region. A system that is very capable but will not significantly change the balance of power allows Russia to remain a power player in the region without pulling itself directly into conflict with regional powers or the U.S. This may change however considering Russia’s position in Ukraine, but for the moment the S-300VM seems to be the only best option for Russian allies in the Middle East. While not the S-300, it is still a dangerous system for U.S. and coalition air power in the region.