The movement of Russian S-300 missiles to the Syrian theater can have no other purpose than to deter Western air forces from attempting to act within the Syrian front. The movement, announced by Russia’s Aerospace Forces Command, is allegedly intended to secure Russia’s air base within Syria against threats to include having its own planes hijacked. Presumably we are meant to imagine Islamic State terrorists managing to steal Russian attack aircraft — or, even more implausibly, its multi-role fighters — and somehow managing to fly them in accurate and successful sorties against the Russian base in Latakia. Penetration of the Russian air base by terrorists might allow them to destroy the planes on the ground, as during the famous Camp Bastion raid in Afghanistan, which badly damaged eight US Marine Corps Harriers. However, Russia’s enemies in the Syrian conflict do not have the infrastructure or the training to capture and wield its air forces against it. They would be lucky to be able to use the planes as one-off kamikaze craft: even if they came up with a suicidal pilot who could fly one, they would have to manage a takeoff while contesting the air base with Russian and allied security forces. Planes are very vulnerable before takeoff, having low maneuverability during the taxi phase.
What is far more likely is that the deployment has nothing to do with securing Latakia against the factions against whom Russia is fighting in the Syrian Civil War, and everything to do with its long game opposing other great powers for influence in the Levant. The move makes more sense as a response to the Pentagon’s deployment to Turkey, announced this week as well, of F-15C fighters designed for air to air combat. The Pentagon’s deployment followed Russia’s own deploment of Su-30 fighters very similar to the F-15 in capabilities and overall role. The Russian missile deployment undoes that near-parity and restores clear Russian superiority. The S-300 missile system is specifically designed to track and destroy “fourth generation” fighters such as the upgraded F-15s, F-16s and F-18s that make up the backbone of American air forces’ fighters.
If the Russians have deployed the S-300—or worse—the far more capable S-400 strategic surface-to-air missile defense system to Syria, it could effectively render entire swaths of Syria into de facto no-fly zones for U.S. and allied aircraft. Only the U.S. Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor or the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber would be able to operate inside areas protected by those weapons.
But even those aircraft could be challenged if there were enough S-300 batteries operating as part of an integrated air defense network. The exact number and location of the S-300s would make a huge difference. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the S-300 system is mobile—and can move at a moment’s notice. “If they’re all over every square inch of the country, then it doesn’t matter what you put out there—it’s going to be a challenge,” a senior Air Force official with extensive stealth experience told me earlier in the year.
All of these maneuvers between the superpowers are ultimately about what the end state will look like in Syria. The Russian moves appear to put them in the commanding position, but Russia has a clear weakness in its position: it is reliant for success on the ground upon Iranian-led forces loyal to Tehran and Quds Force. Russia’s air and naval gunnery component will depend on targeting packets drawn up by Iran and forces that Iran has nurtured and developed. Control of the ground will depend on Iranian-backed Shi’a militias ideologically loyal to Khamenei’s revolution. Russia is willing to depend on Iran because it is willing to leave Syria within Iran’s sphere of influence, provided its own interests are respected.
Thus it should be no surprise that the language being introduced by the international Syria war panel follows Iran’s interests. The language was adopted following an explosive display by the newly-introduced Iranian negotiating team:
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir got into a heated argument, during which Zarif blamed Saudi Arabian nationals for the 9/11 attacks. The comments startled the participants, who included Secretary of State John Kerry, and the room went quiet after Zarif’s remark. Zarif confirmed to me that he made the remark….
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in Bahrain that eventually Russia will realize its intervention in Syria was a mistake, and the Kremlin will abandon its support for Assad. Most officials and experts at the conference were skeptical of that assessment. Regardless, Russia has signed on to what’s known as the Geneva Communique, which calls for a transition governing body to take over in Syria until credible elections can be held.
Iran has never agreed to the Geneva terms. Notably, the joint statement coming out of Vienna makes no mention of the transitional governing body. It simply states that the U.N. will convene a political process leading to a new constitution and new elections. If that language stands, Iran will have scored a major concession that opens the door for Assad’s continued rule.
Emphasis added. Iran’s bold negotiating stance is borne of confidence, and it appears to have won its first victory. Backed by Russian control of the air, Iran seeks to control the ground and therefore the final outcome. Any attempt to sway that by diplomacy alone will fail. Only a change in the material circumstances on the ground, brought about by military means, can avoid ultimately conceding to Iranian and Russian terms.