Russian missile defences arrive in Syria — and US and Israeli fighters could be in the crosshairs

Tech. Sgt. Javier Cruz/USAFWill US Air Force pilots in Syria be targeted by Russian-made missile defences?
  • Russia has delivered its powerful S-300 missile defence systems to Syria after losing 15 servicemembers and a spy plane to a friendly fire incident during an Israeli air raid.
  • Syrian air defences reportedly have targeted US jets before, and downed an Israeli jet in February.
  • The US and Israel both say they will keep fighting in Syria, and that means air power for the advanced militaries.
  • Syria has been at war for seven years, but somehow avoided that war spilling over into a great power conflict. But with Russia escalating the stakes, serious confrontations could play out.

Russia has delivered its powerful S-300 missile defence systems to Syria after losing 15 servicemembers and a spy plane to a friendly fire incident during an Israeli air raid, and the systems raise the prospect of a Russian war against Israel or the US.

Russia’s new S-300s will replace older systems that have a poor track record of defending against airstrikes of any kind. Israel has attacked targets in Syria more than 200 times and the US has twice fired large salvos of Tomahawk Cruise missiles into the country.

The only confirmed success of Syria’s previous air defences came in a February shoot-down of an Israeli F-16. In other cases, Syrian air defences have been captured firing blindly.

But despite the acutely increased risk to Israeli forces, the Jewish state remains committed to carrying out its mission in Syria.

“We have not changed our strategic line on Iran,” said Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of Israel’s security cabinet, according to Radio Free Europe.

“We will not allow Iran to open up a third front against us. We will take actions as required,” he said.

Iran has an estimated 70,000 fighters in Syria and seeks to wield its influence in the country to facilitate arms transfers to Hezbollah, a US-designated terror group bent on Israel’s destruction with a political presence in Lebanon. Israel, over hundreds of airstrikes, has sought to defeat that mission.

“Introducing the S-300s to the Syrian government would be a significant escalation by the Russians,” President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said at the UN General Assembly in September.

The more capable S-300s could aide Syrian air defences in targeting US jets that operate in the region. Breaking Defence reported in September that US jets have frequently been “painted,” or marked as targets, by Syria air defences that sometimes fire and miss at the Americans.

With Syrians operating improved missile batteries, US jets may find themselves credibly threatened, in which case they may exercise their right to self defence.

Business Insider in September reported that the Russian servicemembers will staff S-300 missile defences in Syria.

The US, like Israel, has vowed to continue operations in Syria until Iran backs off. With a very small ground presence in Syria, the US largely relies on air power to protect its forces.

For Syrians enduring a seven-year civil war that has killed and displaced millions, major war has been their horrific reality.

But now, with Russians manning potentially deadly missile defence in Syria, and Syrians targeting Israeli and US jets that remain determined to stay, the risk of a war spilling out of the region and into a US-Russian conflict has risen steeply.

“Having Russian servicemen or officers either operate this system or be in the vicinity training Syrians means that any Israeli suppression of enemy air defences mission will run escalation risks not with an Arab or Iranian military force, but with the Russians,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Syria expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies told Business Insider.

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