Israel could overcome advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles if they were deployed in Syria but any strikes on the system would be difficult and risk alienating its supplier, Russia.
Israel has pledged to take preventive action, seeing a future Syrian S-300 as a “game-changing” threat to its own air space as well as to the relative free rein with which it now overflies its northern foe as well as neighbouring Lebanon.
Experts agree that Israeli sabotage or open force to disrupt delivery by Russia is extremely unlikely - a view seemingly shored up by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s announcement on Thursday that the first missiles had arrived.
That leaves Israel lobbying Moscow to slow down the shipment in hopes it would be overtaken and scrapped if Assad fell to a more than two-year-old rebellion, and in parallel preparing counter-measures to neutralise the S-300 on the ground in Syria.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror as warning European diplomats that Israel would “prevent the S-300 missiles from becoming operational”. That may be achieved by ensuring Assad does not get the full system, experts say, or by disabling it militarily if he does.
“The S-300 would be the pinnacle of Russian-supplied arms for Syria,” Colonel Zvika Haimovich, a senior Israeli air force officer, told Reuters in an interview. “Though it would impinge on our operations, we are capable of overcoming it.”
He said Israel’s “red line” on the S-300 was “between Syria and others”. This was a hint Israel might hold off on bombing the batteries as long they did not appear set on shooting down planes within Israeli airspace, of being transferred to Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas or to Iran - both staunch allies of Assad and enemies of Israel, or of being looted by Islamist rebels.
The Israelis excel in electronic warfare. In 1982, they “blinded” Soviet-supplied Syrian anti-aircraft units in Lebanon, then destroyed 19 of them without Israeli losses. Similar technologies helped Israeli jets destroy a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 and, this year, to hit Syrian targets on at least three occasions to prevent what intelligence sources called attempts to move advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.