AMMAN — On Friday, May 1, an alleged Syrian military source criticized the S-300 air defense systems supplied by Russia as incapable of stopping Israeli airstrikes and as “backwards,” reported Middle East Monitor, citing Avia.pro, a Russian media outlet.
It is worth noting that Middle East Monitor did not link to a specific report on the Avia.pro website, casting some doubt on the source’s comments.
Three days later, likely Israeli jets carried out two back-to-back airstrikes on a munitions factory in northern Aleppo province and on Iranian targets near al-Abukamal border crossing with Iraq in Deir e-Zor province, killing at least 14 Iranian-backed fighters.
The comments by the alleged Syrian military official reveal a deep frustration in Damascus at what seems to be a never-ending string of Israeli airstrikes and humiliating attacks by Turkish airpower in Idlib just two months earlier.
If the semi-public criticism is to be taken at face value, it appears the Syrian government has decided that Russia’s air-defense systems, rather than its Syrian operators, are to blame for the failure to stop these strikes.
Faulty equipment or a dysfunctional military?
In October 2018, Moscow gifted Damascus the S-300 air defense system in spite of vocal protests from numerous western countries. The S-300— first produced by the Soviet Union in the 1970s—became the most sophisticated piece of technology in Syria’s aging air defense arsenal.
The S-300 is a long-range missile defense system which acts as the outermost layer for a more complex air defense network. On paper at least, the S-300 compliments Syria’s already existing system of medium-to-short-range missile defense systems.
However, the S-300 has an inherent limitation, Sitki Egeli, an assistant professor at Izmir University of Economics and the former Director of International Affairs for Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, told Syria Direct.
“As a long-range system, the S-300 suffers from the problem of radar horizon, meaning targets cannot be detected if they’re lying low due to the curvature of the earth. Strike aircraft, such as F-16s fly relatively close to the surface of the earth, and by the time they’re detected, they have already launched their munitions, so it’s too late,” Egeli explained.
In the past, Israeli airstrikes are believed to have been conducted by low-flying F-16s and helicopters.
Typically, this blind spot is compensated by other components of an integrated air defense system, such as airborne early warning aircraft and passive ground-based sensors.
In the case of Syria, however, equipment is either too dilapidated to detect more advanced Israeli technology in time, or personnel is too thinly-stretched and poorly-trained to operate the necessary equipment. As a consequence, there has been an overreliance on the S-300 and Syrian air defense operators often use it for tasks for which it was not designed.
The results of such a policy have ranged from unsuccessful to catastrophic, such as in July 2019 when Syria shot an older S-200 missile at an attacking Israeli jet and instead hit Nicosia, Cyprus.
“It’s not a problem of the S-300 or S-400, it is a limitation of long-range air defense systems,” Egeli said. “They fit in a certain spot in a larger air defense architecture, on the outer fringes. They’re not built for aircraft coming low and launching standoff missiles.”
The fragmented structure and lack of professionalism of the Syrian air force further compounds equipment issues.
“There is no ‘layered air defense’ in Syria; there’s a big mess,” Tom Cooper, a warfare analyst and the editor of the Middle East at War book series, told Syria Direct.
“The Syrian Arab Air Defense is staffed by the last few professional officers one can find in Syria, and then a mass of ‘VIP-sons.’ These are sons of Assad’s favorites or chiefs of different intelligence agencies. Some of them can fight, the rest are useless,” Cooper explained.
Syria’s air defense batteries are split among seven divisions and regiments, with four divisions responsible for the long-range S-200 and S-300 systems and three regiments responsible for the medium-to-short-range systems, according to the Military Balance 2020 report.
The distributed command structure of the air defense network could create problems in coordination, something which the Israeli air force would be eager to exploit to minimize risk to its aircraft.
“There is little doubt that [Israel] is using cyber attacks and electronic countermeasures in parallel with its airstrikes,” Egeli said.
“It’s always possible to jam and deceive [air defense] systems via decoys and fake targets. The Syrian air defender might think you are 50 kilometers from where you are or fire their missiles at targets that never actually existed,” he added.
All of these tactics could prevent Syria’s early detection systems from spotting incoming foreign aircraft or missiles, leaving little time for even short-range missile defense systems to respond.
As a result, the videos released by Syrian state media showing Syrian air defenses firing to meet Israeli missiles mid-air could actually just be fired at fabricated radar signals or decoys.
Is Beijing trying to cash in?
In addition to specifically naming the S-300 as “ineffective,” the Syrian military source noted that Chinese radars had “worked successfully” in detecting Israeli missiles.
This is an unusual statement to make, as it would mean that Syria is either using Chinese radars simultaneously, but separately from the S-300, or that it had integrated the radars into the S-300 system.
Both possibilities seem less than optimal. Chinese radars could provide the first warning for incoming targets, but the S-300 would still need to rely on its own radar for targeting and engagement purposes. In addition, further integration of Chinese radars into the Russian system would have to be done custom by the respective Chinese and Russian manufacturers, which would not be an easy feat, according to Egeli.
What was the purpose of the Syrian military source’s alleged comments then? Among other possibilities, it could be Chinese opportunism attempting to promote its own missile defense system at the expense of Russia.
In late February, for example, Sina published a report which urged Syria to replace the “failed” S-300 system with a Chinese air defense system, the HQ-9. The HQ-9 is a Chinese-produced medium-to-long-range missile defense system that performs a similar function to the Russian S-300 systems.
China has struggled to find buyers for the air defense system. A deal to sell the system to Turkey was scuttled in 2015, with Ankara instead opting to buy Russia’s S-400.
Syria has been used as both a testing ground and a showroom for Russian military technology and has been largely credited with spurring a boom in Russian defense exports to the developing world. China could be looking to use Syria to showcase its arms to a global market in much the same way.
The Syrian military source’s comments then, whether intentional or not, aid Beijing’s attempt to nudge its way into Syria’s military imports and further promote the reputation of its military technology.
The comments also come after a highly-publicized series of articles in Russian newspapers which criticized the Assad government for endemic corruption and incompetence. The quote from the Syrian military source could be an attempt to publicly undermine Moscow’s military’s reputation as a form of under-the-table retaliation.