DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Though undeniably a game-changer in the Syrian conflict, the imminent delivery of S-300 air defense systems to the Syrian government could risk dangerously escalating the conflict. Indeed, recent statements from top Israeli and Syrian government officials have made it clear that open war between the two countries could potentially ignite in the coming weeks and months not despite, but because of, the presence of Syria’s improved and upgraded air defense systems.
The highly anticipated delivery of the S-300 systems to Syria is expected to occur in a matter of days, a consequence of the downing of a Russian electronic-warfare plane in Syria earlier this month. Russia has blamed Israel for the plane’s destruction and the death of its crew, asserting that the Israeli Air Force used the plane as cover to bomb Syria. Israel has denied responsibility for the incident.
On Tuesday, Vladimir Ermakov, an official at Russia’s Foreign Ministry, assured observers of the Syrian conflict that the delivery of the S-300 would help Syria to exercise sovereignty over its airspace by closing its “airspace where necessary,” and that the defensive weapons would “lead to the stabilization of the region.” Ermakov’s comments came after U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton warned against Russia’s delivery of the system to Syria, saying it would be a “significant escalation” by Moscow.
Ermakov’s statements that the S-300 would have a stabilizing influence on the conflict were followed by comments from Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, who urged Israel to think twice before launching further attacks on targets within Syrian territory once the S-300 systems are in place. Speaking to China’s Xinhua news agency, Mekdad stated:
Israel, which got used to carrying out many attacks under different pretexts, would have to recalculate and reconsider before attacking again. Let the Israelis try [to attack] and we will defend ourselves as we have done before.”
As Mekdad noted, Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes against Syrian targets over the course of the war and has publicly claimed that it is attacking “Iranian” military installations within Syria, despite the fact that Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict includes only a handful of military advisors rather than ground troops.
Israel has repeatedly claimed that Iran is seeking to establish a military foothold in Syria with the aim of placing pressure on Israel’s northern border, though Iran and Syrian government officials have repeatedly denied this claim. However, Israel’s long-standing goal of overthrowing the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad and Tel Aviv’s covert funding and arming of Syrian “rebels” suggest that Israel’s motivation for launching the strikes goes far beyond alleged concerns over Iran’s military presence.
Instead of taking Mekdad’s statements as a plea to reconsider its policy of launching continued, unilateral airstrikes against Syrian targets, the Israeli government has taken them as a challenge and has responded defiantly. On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that “we will continue to act to prevent the Iranian military buildup in Syria,” meaning that Israel’s bombing of Syria will continue unchanged regardless of the imminent upgrade to Syrian air defenses. Netanyahu further added that “we will do what is necessary to defend Israel’s security.”
Prior to Netanyahu’s statements, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had stated on Sunday that the deployment of the S-300s will in no way affect Israel’s policy of unilaterally bombing Syria. Earlier this year in April, Lieberman had issued not-so-veiled threats in which he said Israel would “destroy” any and all Syrian missile defense systems if those systems targeted Israeli jets in Syrian airspace. Following Lieberman’s comments, Russia warned Israel against attacking S-300 installations if they were deployed, stating that such attacks would likely lead to a dramatic escalation in the conflict.
Following these comments from Lieberman and now Netanyahu, Israel seems intent on continuing on a collision course with the Syrian government. This is only made more clear by Mekdad’s assertion that Syria will use the more advanced S-300 “to defend ourselves as we have done before,” suggesting that the S-300’s imminent deployment is set to lead to increased conflict between Syria and Israel, instead of acting as a stabilizing influence as the Russian government has publicly claimed. However, given that Russia is aware of the recent and past statements of Israeli government officials, their public assertions as to the S-300’s stabilizing influence may have their own ulterior motive.
Instead, the S-300’s superior capabilities may give Israel a pretext for increasing its involvement in the Syria’s war as well as increasing the involvement of Israel’s main ally, the United States, which has also recently sought to ratchet up tensions in Syria.
As MintPress noted in a previous report, Israel is unlikely to sit back and watch Syria become “untouchable” thanks to the S-300, given the breadth of its involvement in the conflict and its role in conceiving it.
With the U.S.’ unwavering support assured, Israel may feel comfortable taking a risk of sparking a larger war in Syria, knowing that the Americans will likely back them regardless of the consequences. Indeed, U.S. military commanders have already stated that U.S. troops “are prepared to die” to defend Israel, regardless of whether or not Israel is the military aggressor in an upcoming conflict.
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