Russia Sending Air Defense Weapons To Syria, Risking Confrontation With Israel

Signs and portents in the Middle East.

Russia Israel

Russia seems to be sending a clear message to the West regarding intervention in the Syrian civil war:

MOSCOW – Russia will proceed with plans to provide Syria with an advanced air defense system, in part to prevent foreign “hot heads” from getting involved in the country’s conflict, a top Russian diplomat said today.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov confirmed plans to deliver the S-300 system, but would not confirm when it would arrive. The S-300, one of the world’s most advanced air defense systems, could make it harder for foreign forces to carry out airstrikes inside Syria, as Israel has done this year, or to impose a no-fly zone, as some members of Congress have called for.

The move is Russia’s biggest and most public step so far to bolster the government of Syria’s beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad, its longtime ally. Rybakov made no attempt to hide the Kremlin’s intention to prevent outside forces from tipping the scales in the long and bloody civil war.

“We believe such steps are to a great extent restraining some ‘hot heads’ from considering scenarios in which the conflict may assume an international scale with the participation of outside forces,” he said, according to RIA Novosti.

Russia agreed to sell Syria the S-300 in 2010 before the conflict began, but its shipment was delayed in part because of international pressure.

Today, Rybakov dismissed calls from overseas to halt the delivery, saying: “We understand all the concerns and signals sent to us from various states. We see that this issue worries many of our partners. We have no reasons to reconsider our position in this sphere.”

Earlier this spring, there was some indication that the Russians may have been backing away from their staunch support of the Syrians, but a move like this shows that to clearly not be the case. Syria quite obviously has no need for air defense weapons in its war against the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups, so this is obviously directed at beefing up Syrian air defenses in response to the increasing suggestions of outside intervention, including both the establishment of a no-fly zone and something akin to Israel’s attacks earlier this month on purported chemical weapons transfers.

It will take time for the Syrians to accept delivery of these weapons, of course, and that may mean that we’ll see outside attacks on Syria before the new air defense systems are put in place. With the war already threatening to spread into Lebanon and drag in its long history of ethnic strife, this would only seem to guarantee that things will get worse before they even start to get better.

Update: A few news items noted below in the comments. First, Israel is already saying that they will act to prevent the S-300s from becoming active, which sets of f the possibility of a standoff between Israel and Russia at some point down the line, something that Juan Cole reflects on today:

Unless the Russians or the Israelis blink, they have by their rhetoric put themselves on a potential war footing.

Yaalon is an Israeli Neoconservative of sorts, who was fired as Army Chief of Staff in 2005 for opposing the Israeli withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip. He later joined the far right Likud Party. He has called the Palestinians a “cancer” and said Israel had to consider killing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In short, he is a bit erratic and a hothead, which is not what you would like to see in the defense minister of a nuclear-armed state.

It is hard to know how determined Moscow is on its course. Some Russian experts don’t believe that the S-300s will actually be sent, or that they can be sent before the comprehensive peace conference planned by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Other Russian experts are pessimistic that this conference will actually get off the ground, given the disarray in rebel ranks and ambivalence of neighboring states.

But Ryabkov seems to have been signaling that Putin is determined to prevent Western or Israeli bombings of the regime, and that is the main impetus to supplying the S-300s at this time. If he is to be taken seriously, then Putin could well call Israel’s bluff. At that point, Yaalon will have to risk escalation with Russia or quietly accept that Syria is the latter’s sphere of influence, not Tel Aviv’s. Either step will represent a big change in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Who will back down in this coming confrontation? And what happens if nobody does?

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. stonetools says:

    I’ve always thought it was naive to imagine that Syria was going to be a purely local conflict , with no influence beyond its borders. So Russia has made a move in this game of international three dimensional chess. No obvious counter move, IMO. Glad I’m not Obama.

  2. Scott says:

    Countermove: Stay the hell away. And avoid any domestic macho posturing on anyone’s part.

  3. DC Loser says:

    The Israelis are going to go batshit crazy over this. They may be tempted to attack the shipment in transit, but then risk killing Russian citizens accompanying the shipment. Once the S-300s (SA-10, SA-20) are in place, they will be a game changer. the IAF will no longer be able to fly near or above Syrian airspace with impunity.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Juan Cole has a good writeup on this today

  5. DC Loser says:

    Meanwhile, Bibi draws his red line. Since the Russians are not likely to back down, there’s going to have to be some face saving deal if we are to keep the S-300s out. Maybe we’ll let the Iranians take them 🙂

  6. Tylerh says:

    Counter move:

    Give the local Syrian rebels radar jammers — those are non-lethal, so the US could provide them today.

    If you can fit a radar jammer into a missile, you can sure as heck fit a radar jammer into a Toyota. At n appointed time, drive the Toyotas to the proper locations and turn on the jammers, blinding the Syrian air defense radars as the opening move of an Israeli drone-led air strikes on the launchers.

    However, this is actually a bad idea.

  7. Tylerh says:

    Thinking through 3 dimensional chess: it’s a bluff.

    Given Syria’s long, sad history of getting Russian hardware trashed by the Israeli Air Force, giving the Syrians expensive new toys they can’t maintain — or even use against the most pressing threat — makes no military sense.

    But politically……

    Syria’s most effective ground troops currently come from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia. However, Hezbollah is suffering a massive loss of credibility amongst other Arabs for openly putting down a Arab Spring revolt that has embraced Al Qeda.

    To wash away the taint of fighting for a secular, Alawite dictator, Hezbollah desperately needs the Israelis to publicly strike at Assad, thereby making it appear that Hezbollah is fighting against Israel, rather being mere hired guns and political lackeys for Assad.

    The Russians are providing the bait. Expect the missile transport from Russia to Syria to be *very* public.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    The Russians, more inclined to Realpolitik than we are, believe that après Assad le déluge. Assad may not be much and he may be killing off his own people in droves but whatever replaces him is not likely to be any better and, worse, is unknown.

  9. stonetools says:


    Countermove: Stay the hell away. And avoid any domestic macho posturing on anyone’s part.

    Unfortunately, with McCain, the neo-cons, and AIPAC, there WILL be macho domestic posturing, as sure as tomorrow’s sunrise. That’s baked in the cake. We must react, or “the terrorists win/Israel will be endangered/Iran will move one step to dominating the region/Russia will be back to being a player in the Middle East, and will finally fulfill its thousand year project of getting a warm water southern port”, etc..And those are just the justifications for action that i thought up of the top of my head. Can Obama afford to let the Republicans “out-macho” him, given the crucial 12014 elections?

  10. Dazedandconfused says:

    I don’t see the Israel/Russian confrontation. The Syrians are purchasing them. When they get there they are Syrian weapons, not Russian. Russians manning them? Why is that a “known”? Syrian personnel can certainly be trained to operate them in Russia.

    Israel’s statements justifying the last strike were to their concerns were that these weapons would be given to Hezb’allah, which is an admission they didn’t have a problem with Syria having them.

    The whole issue of Israelis position on the Syrian civil war seems to have been “begged”. They were careful not to take sides on the last strike. Very careful. From their perspective, it’s a serious question if they prefer a Syria dominated by Jihadists over a Syria that has been “the devil they knew”.

  11. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:


    Can Obama afford to let the Republicans “out-macho” him, given the crucial 12014 elections?

    Obama is playing a very long game.

  12. socraticsilence says:

    So, Israel pretty much has to find a way to destroy the Air Defense stuff without killing Russians right, I mean Putin doesn’t back down its essentially what he’s built his entire persona on.

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