Israel continues ratcheting up its rhetoric this week in response to Russia's Defense Ministry signaling it will likely move forward in arming Syria with the advanced S-300 missile defense system, bringing both Israeli and Lebanese airspace to within targeting range of Syrian missiles. On Tuesday Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in unambiguous terms that his country would attack such missile sites should Russia move forward on supplying them.
Liberman told Israel's YNet, “What's important to us is that the defensive weapons the Russians are giving Syria won't be used against us,” and threatened further, “one thing should be clear: If someone fires on our planes, we will destroy them.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in the past years of war in Syria – of which Israel is a significant player, especially given its longtime support of al-Qaeda linked anti-Assad insurgents to the south of Damascus – made it clear that transfer of the S-300 would constitute a “red line” on which Israel would act.
In 2013, when Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly first considered the move, marking a major and exceptionally advanced update to Syria's current Soviet-era deterrent systems, Netanyahu warned, “We'll destroy your missiles if you deliver them to Assad.” He said that Israel would hit them before the system came online.
And crucially, as Haaretz notes, “With Putin's S-300, Assad's army could even 'lock-on' IAF aircraft as they take off from bases within Israel.” And as one Israeli defense analyst put it, “Israel should be worried.” But what's really behind Israel's dire warnings to the world and longtime threats of acting on “red lines”.
Concerning Syria's current missile defense deterrent capabilities – though contested among analysts – Syria's over 30-year old current deterrent system appears to have performed well, likely stunning the West and neighboring Israel (which itself played a part in the coalition attack) as it reportedly shot down 71 of the 103 cruise missiles, according to official Russian and Syrian government sources (Russia this week has offered proof that its version is correct, over and against Pentagon claims that not a single tomahawk was shot down). Israeli military analysts are now themselves quite open about the end-goal here: it is all about Israel's aim of maintaining the capability to do whatever it wants in Syria, without repercussions – whether international censure or domestic push-back against the Likud establishment. One can look no further than “the centrist” Jerusalem Post, whose Deputy Managing Editor Tovah Lazaroff is unusually candid regarding Israeli aims while citing an Israeli general: Israel fears the S-300 would hamper its ability to attack military sites in Syria that are dangerous to the Jewish State and would therefore allow Iran to strengthen its military foothold in that country.