Israeli satellite intel firm: Syrian S-300 air defenses ‘probably operational’

ImageSat International says 3 of 4 launchers from powerful Russian anti-aircraft system appear ready for use; Israel has threatened to destroy battery if used against its jets

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

Screen capture from video showing the delivery of Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. (YouTube)
Screen capture from video showing the delivery of Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. (YouTube)

An Israeli satellite imagery analysis company on Tuesday said Syria’s powerful S-300 air defense system was “probably operational,” indicating potential threat to Israel’s largely aerial campaign against Iran in the country.

The firm, ImageSat International, based this assessment on multiple images of the anti-aircraft battery, which showed three of its four launchers in a raised position, signaling that they are likely ready to be used by the Syrian military.

“The images of the three erected launchers at various times in Syria indicate that they are probably operational,” the firm wrote on its website.

The fourth launcher, which has not been seen in the raised position, does not appear to be operational, according to ISI.

The satellite imagery company said it was “possibly an invalid, dummy or a different element that serves as deception.”

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)

Israel has threatened to destroy the S-300 system if it is used against its fighter jets, regardless of the potential blowback Jerusalem would face from Russia, which provided Syria with the powerful air defense battery.

On February 5, ISI said the air defense battery, located at the Masyaf base in northwestern Syria, appeared to be on track to become operational, based on the shadows they cast on the ground by its launchers.

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.

On Tuesday, the firm said it obtained additional images of the battery on February 9 using a technique known as synthetic-aperture radar (SAR), which uses the movement of a radar system to provide finer details about the nature of the object it is tracking.

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, saying the Israeli pilots used the spy plane as cover during the strike.

The charge was rejected by Jerusalem, which blamed the downing of the Russian aircraft on Syrian troops firing their air defenses wildly and continuing to do so after the Israeli fighter jets left the area.

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

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

Since the system was delivered in October, Russia has been training Syrian forces to operate the powerful air defense platform.

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 earlier this month.

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

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 or destroying it, though this would risk a major diplomatic rift with 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)

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 this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would travel to Moscow on February 21 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 the talks would focus on Iranian efforts to establish a military presence in Syria.

The premier 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 press conference this month.

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.

Israeli military intelligence believes Iran’s threats of retaliation derive, in part, from the protection the Islamic Republic believes it has from the S-300 system, according to the IDF’s assessments for the coming year.

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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