Images show S-300 air defense batteries in Syria likely turning operational
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Images show S-300 air defense batteries in Syria likely turning operational

Israel’s ImageSat International says 3 of 4 launchers from powerful Russian anti-aircraft system appear to be raised, possibly signifying heightened alert level

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

Satellite photos released by ImageSat International appear to show three out of four missile launchers of the S-300 air defense system in the raised position in Masyaf on February 5, 2019. (ImageSat International)
Satellite photos released by ImageSat International appear to show three out of four missile launchers of the S-300 air defense system in the raised position in Masyaf on February 5, 2019. (ImageSat International)

An Israeli satellite imaging company on Tuesday said it had for the first time detected that a suspected Syrian S-300 air defense system appeared on track to become operational, signaling a possible threat to Israel’s air campaign against Iran in the country.

However, the ImageSat International firm added that there remained significant questions about the anti-aircraft battery’s condition.

Following the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli airstrike in September, Moscow announced it was providing the Syrian military with the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system. Russia publicly blamed Israel for the loss of the reconnaissance aircraft and its 15 crew members.

The charge was rejected by Jerusalem, which also rebuffed a Russian claim that Israeli fighter jets hid behind the Russian reconnaissance aircraft following their attack.

Russia has said the S-300 platform it was giving Syria following September’s incident would “cool off hot heads” in the region.

Since the system was delivered in October, Russia has been training Syrian forces to operate the powerful air defense platform, reportedly at a base near Masyaf in northwestern Syria.

On Tuesday, the firm revealed that three of the four launchers of the S-300 system at the Masyaf base were raised, as evident by the shadows they cast on the ground next to them. This was the first time that the launchers were photographed in a raised position, though not necessarily the first time they had been put in position, the company said.

Satellite photos released by ImageSat International on November 14, 2018 appear to show S-300 systems in the northwestern Syrian city of Masyaf are not yet operational. (ImageSat International)

In November, the firm also released photographs of the battery, showing that it did not appear to be operational at that time.

For years, Israel has been waging a campaign against Damascus’s ally, Iran, which Jerusalem accuses of attempting to establish a permanent military presence in Syria to threaten the Jewish state.

This once quiet fight has become increasingly public in recent months, with each side issuing threats against the other.

“Due [to] the current regional tension… it is possible that the mentioned activity indicates [an] increase of the operational level and alertness,” ImageSat said.

However, the company noted that the precise meaning of the raised launchers is not clear from the images alone.

Notably, one of the launchers remains down and covered by a camouflage net, while the others are erect, which ImageSat said was a “rare” situation that “raises question marks about the operational level of the whole battery.”

Syria’s acquisition and eventual operation of the S-300 system marks a substantial improvement in its air defense capabilities. However, Israel has long been rumored to be capable of maneuvering around the system. Israeli officials have also warned that the IDF is prepared to destroy the powerful anti-aircraft system if it fires upon Israeli jets, despite the fact that this would likely be denounced by Russia, the most influential superpower in the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad during their meeting in Russia, May 17, 2018. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

In addition to four interceptor missile launchers, Moscow also provided Syria with new radars, targeting systems and command centers.

The Syrian military last year said it believed the S-300 air defense systems would largely stop Israel from successfully conducting strikes against targets in the country.

Earlier on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would travel to Moscow later this month for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first formal meeting since Russia blamed Israel for the downing of a military aircraft by Syrian anti-aircraft fire last September.

Netanyahu said he will fly to Russia on February 21 for talks focused on Iranian efforts to establish a military presence in Syria.

The premier made the announcement during a press conference with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.

His office said the Israeli and Russian leaders would also discuss regional issues and improving security coordination between the countries’ militaries in Syria.

There was no immediate confirmation from the Kremlin, though spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced a trilateral meeting between Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 14 in Sochi. Peskov said the meeting would focus on Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader’s Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)

Netanyahu has met with Putin numerous times since Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria, where along with Iran and allied proxy groups it’s fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Diplomatic contacts between Israel and Russia have all but stopped since the spy plane incident. Military cooperation, however, has continued with delegations from Israel traveling to Russia and vice versa.

Netanyahu had credited his close contacts with Putin for Moscow allowing Israel to continue using air power in Syria against Iran. He has reportedly repeatedly sought a meeting with Putin since the incident.

Their meeting will also be their first since US President Donald Trump announced in December he would pullout all US troops from Syria, in a move welcomed by Putin but has been met with concern in Jerusalem.

Israel says it has carried out hundreds of airstrikes on Iranian-linked targets during that time, as part of a campaign to prevent Tehran from establishing a military presence in Syria.

“In many ways we’ve blocked that advance, but we’re committed to continuously blocking it, continuously preventing Iran from creating another war front against us right here opposite the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said in a joint press conference with Van der Bellen.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media shows Iran’s army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looks into binoculars as he visits and other senior officers from the Iranian military in Aleppo, Syria, October 20, 2017. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

Also on Tuesday, a senior Iranian defense official warned that his country will strike back at Israel if the Jewish state continues to carry out air raids against its forces in Syria.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, made the threat as he held talks with visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Tehran.

“If these actions continue, we will activate some calculated measures as a deterrent and as a firm and appropriate response to teach a lesson to the criminal and lying rulers of Israel,” Shamkhani said, according to a Fars news agency report.

The comments followed a series of reciprocal taunts by Israeli and Iranian leaders in recent weeks amid rising tensions on the Israeli-Syrian border between Israeli and Iranian forces.

Last week Shamkhani warned that terror groups, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, were prepared to unleash an “inferno” on the Jewish state.

Speaking at a space tech conference, Shamkhani said there were “hundreds of kilometers of tunnels dug underneath [Israelis’] feet, and the resistance forces in Gaza and Lebanon have missiles with pinpoint accuracy and are ready to respond to any foolish Israeli behavior with an inferno.”

Alexander Fulbright and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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