Foreign Policy Blogs

Missile Diplomacy in Syria

Picture of a S-200, NATO codename SA-5 Gammon, a 1980s era missile that was able to shoot down a modern F-16I after a strike in Syria two months ago.

Syria has been the subject of international attention this week due to the recent strike by US, UK and French forces on chemical facilities operated by Syrian President Assad’s forces. Russia, Syria’s ally on the UN Security Council, has put out several statements condemning actions by Western forces, including hinting at an upgrade of Syria’s air defense capabilities if problems persist between the various actors in the region.

Russia has supplied arms to Assad’s forces in their intense fight against rebel forces in Syria. With the high level of equipment being shattered in combat, more advanced Russian combat systems have been replacing lost Syrian Army systems. Much of this equipment is designed for ground combat, including artillery systems designed to exact significant damage on rebel forces. Systems like the Russian T-90 tank is one of the most advanced tanks used in the conflict, replacing many lost T-72 tanks, a weapons system made famous during the 1991 Gulf War by Iraqi Republican Guard units using the 1980s era T-72 as their main battle tank. Russia has also shipped systems like the 2S4 Tulypan to Syria, known as the largest caliber mortar system on the modern battlefield today. While these ground systems are a significant upgrade, they were not active in targeting Western air based munitions during the attack this past week.

Anti-Air systems were the focus of the latest spat between powers in the Middle East this past week, and it is the future of the greater conflict that may be changed as opposed to whether or not chemical or other ground systems will be used in finishing off rebel forces in Syria. Syrian air defense is a mix of systems from an 80s era defense shield, mixed with more recent Russia acquisitions that are meant to target low level aircraft and cruise missile systems. The 1980s era S-125 SA-3 system makes up much of the defensive missiles protecting Syria, along with the S-200 SA-5 system that managed to down an Israeli F-16I recently over Syria, or possibly over Israel itself. More advanced systems like the 1990s era BUK and modern Pantsir-S1 likely were more successful in targeting cruise missiles in the latest attack on Syria, systems designed to combat modern missiles and drones.

Russia has openly discussed up-arming Syria with more advanced missile systems if continued threats challenge the Assad regime. A proposal of possibly arming Syria with one of the more capable versions of the S-300 system would give Syrian air defense a 300km radar range and incredible reach in the region. The S-300 may be able to target and shoot down planes over Israel as well as Turkey if positioned closer to Syria’s border regions, focusing on any type of aircraft and even civilian aircraft. While there has been no intent to target civilian aircraft, a history of mislabelled targets has led to an Iranian airliner being shot down by a US destroyer in the past, as well as a BUK system downing an airliner over Ukraine a few short years ago. The installation of an S-300 system in Syria would likely escalate tensions, a managed response by the Russian government after the US, UK and French attack on Syria. While not the beginning of a wider conflict at this point, the promotion of new systems and strategically significant announcements should be seriously considered.

 

Author

Richard Basas
Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration

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