Russia deploys S-400 missile battery in Syria, state media says
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AnalysisPlanes flying in and out of Ben Gurion would be within Russian sights

Russia deploys S-400 missile battery in Syria, state media says

Placing of sophisticated system in Latakia would grant Russia aerial control over Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus, and stretch as far as Israel's international airport

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The S-400 anti-aircraft missile system on display in Russia. (CC BY-SA Соколрус/Wikimedia)
The S-400 anti-aircraft missile system on display in Russia. (CC BY-SA Соколрус/Wikimedia)

The Russian military has deployed its sophisticated S-400 missile battery and radar array in Syria, a Russian state-run media outlet claimed Thursday.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had announced Wednesday that the system would be deployed in Latakia, in northwest Syria, in response to Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane the day before.

This nigh-impossible speed that would be required to bring in and activate the system in barely 24 hours has prompted some to question whether the S-400 system had been in place well before the Turkish military shot down the Su-24M aircraft, or if it is in place at all.

The advanced missile system, completed in 2007, is capable of detecting and destroying aircraft some 400 kilometers (250 miles) away. Its deployment in Latakia will grant Russia aerial control over practically all of Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus, over half of Turkey, parts of Iraq and Jordan — and, of course, Israel: Planes flying in and out of Ben Gurion International Airport — approximately 395 kilometers (245 miles) from Latakia — would be within Russian sights.

“Do we have something to fear? The answer is: yes and no,” Russia expert Zvi Magen told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

“If [the S-400] is indeed deployed,” Magen explained before Moscow’s state-run media announced the system’s deployment, “it will be a game-changer.”

The head of the US Air Force Central Command, Lt. Gen. Charles Brown Jr., downplayed the missile system’s influence.

“It does complicate things a little bit, and we’ll put some thought to it, but we still have a job to do here, and we’re going to continue to do that job – to defeat Daesh [the Islamic State],” Brown told Air Force Times on Wednesday.

Screen capture from video by Haberturk TV showing a Russian warplane on fire before crashing on a hill as seen from Hatay province, Turkey, November 24, 2015. (Haberturk TV via AP)
Screen capture from video by Haberturk TV showing a Russian warplane on fire before crashing on a hill as seen from Hatay province, Turkey, November 24, 2015. (Haberturk TV via AP)

Though Russia feels it must project strength and fearlessness in response to the Turkish military shooting down a Su-24M fighter jet that allegedly ventured into Turkey’s airspace on Tuesday, installing an S-400 missile system is a dramatic statement with repercussions that Russia would be better off avoiding, Magen said.

The S-400 Triumf system, also known as the SA-21 Growler, combines an advanced radar system, which can detect ballistic missiles and high- and low-flying aircraft from hundreds of miles away, with a variety of missiles capable of taking them out.

Anything from an F-15 fighter jet to a B-2 stealth bomber that comes into the range of the S-400 is at risk of being blown out of the sky.

‘If it gets there, [the S-400] would just change the rules of the game.’

For Israel, the threat is not one of inevitable conflict: Russia is, after all, not an enemy. The threat is in the potential, said Magen, now a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.

When Russia brought its troops into Syria, Israeli generals met with their Russian counterparts to create a hotline to ensure that the IDF could continue to operate against Hezbollah without incident.

Today that protocol is, to an extent, voluntary. However, if the Russian army has in fact brought in the anti-aircraft missile defense system, Israel would then be forced to coordinate its attacks with the Russians, Magen noted.

The IDF refused to comment on the deployment of the S-400 and its possible ramifications on Israeli Air Force activity.

If the state-run Russian media reports are true, Israel will not have the freedom to send in aircraft to Syria unannounced; nor will the United States, France and the other members of the coalition bombing the Islamic State in Syria.

“These measures are not much more than an upping of the Russian threat level towards Turkey and coalition aircraft operating over and around Syria,” Tyler Rogoway, a contributor to the military news site Foxtrot Alpha, wrote on Wednesday.

“Deploying S-400 batteries means any aircraft operating at altitude within about 250 miles of them will be at risk of engagement,” Rogoway said.

The S-400 system will be a Sword of Damocles over the IAF’s head — ever present, always ready to knock an unsuspecting Israeli plane out of the sky, hew indicated. “If it gets there, [the S-400] would just change the rules of the game,” he said.

Russian Defense Minister Shoigu’s threat to deploy the S-400 into one of the most contentious regions in the world had already stirred ample controversy. Actually bringing in the defense system would be an aggressive move that could invite heavy international backlash — and for no good reason, suggested Magen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center, meets with top military officials at the National Defense Control Center of the Russian Federation, Moscow, November 17, 2015. (AFP/Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center, meets with top military officials at the National Defense Control Center of the Russian Federation, Moscow, November 17, 2015. (AFP/Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky)

“They already have enough anti-aircraft systems in the area that are good enough to threaten the Turks,” Magen said.

But the main obstacle to aggressive Russian action is this: Russia cannot attack Turkey without facing a response from Ankara’s fellow NATO members, he noted.

“Section five of the NATO agreement states that if a member of NATO is attacked, the other members are required to assist. An attack on Turkey by Russia would basically be an invitation to all of NATO to deal with the Russians,” Magen said.

“That’s not in Russia’s interest, nor is it within its capabilities,” he added.

Even if Russia were not currently engaged in military conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, Russian President Vladmir Putin would be loath to enter into a conflict with the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and 24 other member states. But with the Russian military already preoccupied, a confrontation with NATO members would be even more disastrous.

“Before they do this, they will have to re-examine [their decision] thoroughly,” Magen said.

In place of a military response, he said, Putin will likely continue with the diplomatic and economic steps he has already taken against Turkey.

“Maybe he’ll take advantage of an opportunity to hit them here and there,” Magen said, “but the response will likely be political and economic, not a military conflict.”

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