Photographs from the morning of October 30, several hours before Israel allegedly struck a military base in Syria, reveal the presence of newly upgraded Russian anti-aircraft missiles and indicate that the US defense establishment, which hastily ordered the satellite photos from a civilian contractor, was given advance warning about the air strike.
Taken at 10 a.m., roughly nine hours before the strike, the photos show two possible targets: an upgraded and deployed battery of S-125 missiles and six very large trailers that could carry missiles. The photos were first published by intelligence analyst Ronen Solomon along with a co-authored accompanying article in Israel Defense magazine.
The S-125 battery, the photos revealed, had been upgraded to a point that it posed a serious threat to Israeli or US aircraft and could, like the US-made Patriot systems, destroy incoming cruise missiles.
Solomon said that the anti-aircraft system, unlike the old S-125, included launchers mounted on amphibious vehicles, missiles with a larger range and an increased payload and, more significantly, the technology to acquire multiple targets and to track planes without radar, making the system far more impervious to advanced Israeli or US electronic warfare.
“It’s the poor man’s S-300,” Solomon said. “It has a very, very advanced capability but a lesser range.”
The S-300, which has a range of over 200 kilometers and could threaten Israeli commercial aircraft as well as fighter planes, has been a central concern of Israel’s in the ever worsening war in Syria. In May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after reportedly ordering a series of strikes in Syria, flew to Sochi, Russia, to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Accompanied by his national security adviser and the head of the army’s military intelligence directorate, Netanyahu reportedly asked Putin to suspend the shipment to Syria and threatened to strike it if it was delivered.
In September, as tension with the US reached a boil, Putin acknowledged that certain parts of the system had been sent to Syria, which paid several hundreds of millions of dollars, but that the full deal was off. “We have delivered separate components but the whole delivery has not been completed and for the moment we have suspended it,” he said.
The upgraded S-125, which uses much of the same technology as the S-300, is made by Almaz-Antey, the same company that makes the S-300. The factory ships anti-aircraft materials out of the Black Sea port of Novorossisysk. On September 6, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that the amphibious ship “the Nikolai Filchenkov, under the command of Captain 2nd Rank Igor Dmitriyenko, is immediately going on a distant mission today.” The ship, a source within the General Staff of the Russian Navy told the news agency, “will go to Novorossiysk, where it will take special cargo on board and will head to its appointed combat service area in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Solomon, who followed the shipment and noted how low the ship rode in the water en route to Syria and how high on the return leg, said he believed the S-125s, upgraded to either M2 or K2 class, were supplied by Russia at some point in September and have been deployed in or around Tartus, Latakia, Aleppo and Damascus.
The Russian report said that the September journey was the fifth such mission from Novorossisyk.
Israel has not taken responsibility for the October 30 strike. Less than 24 hours after the initial reports of several large explosions near Snobar Jableh, however, a source within the Obama administration revealed to CNN’s Pentagon reporter, Barbara Starr, that Israel was responsible for the attack. That leak prompted fury in Jerusalem.
The reasons for the strike, Solomon suggested, are not entirely clear. Perhaps the weapons were being readied for transport to Hezbollah. Perhaps the newly upgraded missile defense system represents a threat to Israeli warplanes seeking to operate in Syria. Perhaps the battery’s advanced tracking system is a liability on the flight path to Iran, if the IAF were to take the northern route, up the coast, past Lebanon and Syria, and through southern Turkey.
But the DigitalGlobe photos and the fact that they were ordered by the US defense establishment, would strongly indicate that the US was tipped off about the strike; and the subsequent leak, amid nuclear negotiations in Geneva and Assad’s ongoing compliance with the UN’s chemical weapons inspectors in Syria, would seem to show that not everyone in the White House was pleased with the Israeli analysis of the threat and the immediacy of the danger it represented.