Analysis: Israel faces threat of Russian missiles

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad announced yesterday that the first missiles had arrived. Picture: AP
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad announced yesterday that the first missiles had arrived. Picture: AP
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ISRAEL could overcome advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles if they were deployed in Syria but any strikes on the system would be difficult and risk alienating its supplier, Russia.

Israel has pledged to take preventive action, seeing a future Syrian S-300 as a “game-changing” threat to its own airspace as well as to the relative free rein with which it now overflies its northern foe and neighbouring Lebanon.

Experts agree that Israeli sabotage or open force to disrupt delivery by Russia is extremely unlikely – a view seemingly shored up by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s announcement yesterday that the first missiles had arrived.

That leaves Israel lobbying Moscow to slow down the shipment in the hope it would be overtaken and scrapped if Assad fell to the rebellion, while in parallel preparing counter-measures to neutralise the S-300 on the ground in Syria.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted national security adviser Yaakov Amidror as warning European diplomats that Israel would “prevent the S-300 missiles from becoming operational”.

That may be achieved by ensuring Assad does not get the full system, experts say, or by disabling it militarily if he does. “The S-300 would be the pinnacle of Russian-supplied arms for Syria,” Colonel Zvika Haimovich, a senior Israeli air force officer, said. “Though it would impinge on our operations, we are capable of overcoming it.”

The Israelis excel in electronic warfare. In 1982, they “blinded” Soviet-supplied Syrian anti-aircraft units in Lebanon, then destroyed 19 of them without Israeli losses.

Similar technologies helped Israeli jets destroy a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 and, this year, to hit Syrian targets on at least three occasions to prevent what intelligence sources called attempts to move advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.

A source close to Russia’s defence ministry agreed that the Israelis “likely have a million ways to combat the S-300 electronically”. But he questioned their feasibility because they had not been tested in war. “So, whether the S-300 would fail or not cannot be known”.

Robert Hewson, an IHS Jane’s analyst, predicted Israeli prowess would prevail in Syria while cautioning the S-300 would be the most formidable air defence system it had ever faced. “Israel has had nasty surprises before,” he said, noting its losses to the Soviet anti-aircraft missiles used by Syria and Egypt in the 1973 war.