Russia Hardens Line With Israel, Sends Air Defenses to Syria

(Bloomberg) -- Russia will provide advanced anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria and directly link up with the air-defense network of its Middle Eastern ally, stepping up support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad after the downing of a reconnaissance plane last week.

Moscow blamed the shoot-down of the aircraft, which killed 15 Russian servicemen, on Israel, whose planes were attacking targets in Syria at the same time. Israel has long called on Russia not to provide the S-300 air-defense system to Syria and in 2013, the Kremlin agreed to put a deal to deliver them on hold.

Russia Hardens Line With Israel, Sends Air Defenses to Syria

But after the downing of the plane last week, “the situation has changed,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an address carried live on national television. “We’re confident that these measures will cool ‘hot heads’ and prevent thoughtless moves that threaten our servicemen,” he said.

U.S. officials criticized the move. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon Monday that “any additional weapons going in to support Assad right now keeps him in a position of threat to the region” and “puts him in a position basically to be more of an obstruction to resolving and ending this fight.”

President Vladimir Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone conversation Monday that the actions of Israel’s pilots “were the main reason for the tragedy,” the Kremlin said in a statement. Putin defended the S-300 delivery and other steps as “appropriate in the current situation,” the Kremlin said, noting that Israel asked for the call.

Netanyahu placed responsibility for the incident on Syria and Iran and told Putin that transferring the S-300 into irresponsible hands will intensify the dangers in the region, the Israeli leader’s office said in a statement. Netanyahu said Israel will continue to protect its security interests and its military coordination efforts with Moscow.

In the immediate aftermath of the downing of the plane last week, Putin appeared to take a softer line with Israel than the military did, noting that it was Syrian air defenses that shot down the plane. In a call with Netanyahu last week, Putin didn’t outline any retaliatory measures, agreeing only to prevent such steps in the future, the Kremlin said in a statement at the time.

Harder Line

But Monday, the Kremlin seemed to take a tougher stance, blaming the downing on “the deliberate actions of Israeli pilots” and saying Israel’s explanations weren’t convincing, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “This can’t but harm our relations,” he said.

Putin spoke to Assad by phone Monday and informed him of the plan to provide the missiles, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Shoigu said the S-300 would be delivered to Syria within two weeks. Syrian air-defense command units will be connected directly to Russian command posts with automated systems that at present are deployed only in Russian units, he said. “Most importantly, this will guarantee that Russian aircraft are identified by Syrian air defenses,” he said. Russia will also jam the electronic communications of aircraft attacking targets in Syria, he said.

“This will take Syrian air defenses to a new level,” said Anton Lavrov, an independent defense analyst based near Moscow. “It won’t make them invulnerable to Israeli attacks, but it will make things more complicated and raise the risk of losses. It could cause a reaction by Israel or the U.S., including attempts to destroy the system before it’s operational.”

The Defense Ministry released detailed computer simulations over the weekend that it said showed that Israeli planes used the Russian reconnaissance aircraft as cover. Shoigu repeated that allegation Monday. Israeli has denied that, saying its planes had already returned to base when Syrian forces fired the missiles that hit the Russian aircraft.

“Moscow’s decision to provide Syrian forces with S-300 air defense system and Russian personnel to operate them is aimed at making Israel more careful in the vicinity of Russian assets, while also controlling Syrian allies,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in Twitter.

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