Given all the Russian-supplied weaponry that Bashar al-Assad has been unleashing on Syrian civilians for more than two years now, the uproar surrounding Moscow’s sale, confirmed last week, of S-300 air defense missile systems to the dictator is rather odd.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the decision was “totally wrong,” and “has a profoundly negative impact.” Condemnation has also come from European and Middle Eastern countries. An editorial in The Guardian called it “calamitous,” and Agence France Presse has described it as “hugely controversial,” adding that it is “seen by analysts as having huge military importance for Assad in the conflict against rebels.”
However, these missiles pose little, if any, threat to Syria’s armed opposition - who have no air force - or to its foreign backers, who have no concrete or imminent plans for the kind of aerial support given to Libyan rebels against the late Muammar Gaddafi.
The European Union decided last week to lift its arms embargo to supply the opposition Syrian National Coalition. Voices in the U.S. administration are calling for the arming of rebels, and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already doing so. However, not even the most bullish advocates are proposing the supply of warplanes, helicopters or ballistic missiles, which the S-300s are designed to target.
Although the White House has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone, “there is no new military planning effort underway with regard to Syria,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said last week. The request “does not signify intent to follow through,” according to Jacey Fortin, world politics reporter for the International Business Times.
The most likely target for the S-300s would be Israel’s air force, which launched raids inside Syria last month, and has consistently threatened to do so under vague and fluid pretextsSharif Nashashibi
The United States is the only country with the capability and resources to establish and maintain a no-fly zone, but there is considerable division in its political and military circles about whether it would be a wise, successful or cost-effective strategy.
“It would be a greater challenge, and would take longer and require more resources” than in Libya, said Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some 10 percent of rebel casualties are a result of the regime’s air power, with the other 90 percent coming from direct fire or artillery, according to Dempsey.
A no-fly zone “could become very costly,” and “would be likely to exceed not only the Libyan mission, but also the more expensive Operation Southern Watch in Iraq in terms of costs incurred, bringing a realistic estimate of costs up to at least $1.4 billion per year,” said Fortin.
No country has the political will, let alone the military means, to implement a no-fly zone on its own, and governments that have voiced support for the idea, such as Turkey’s, say they would only take part within a coalition such as NATO.
However, the alliance - which led the aerial campaign over Libya - “has no such plan,” said the BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell. Furthermore, the no-fly zone over Libya had U.N. approval, which would be impossible vis-a-vis Syria, given the Security Council veto powers of Assad’s allies Russia and China.
Some analysts believe that the S-300 sale is meant to counter a no-fly zone. However, Russian media have reported that delivery might not take place until well into next year. Then regime forces would have to be trained to operate the advanced missiles. Such a timeframe is not conducive to countering a no-fly zone that could be set up well before then.
The most likely target for the S-300s would be Israel’s air force, which launched raids inside Syria last month, and has consistently threatened to do so under vague and fluid pretexts. Last week, Assad said his forces would respond in future to “repeated Israeli aggression.”
Russia’s decision “was more in response to Israel than to the EU,” according to the editorial in The Guardian. “Moscow had been waiting on an Israeli commitment not to carry out further air raids over Syria – which never came.”
On the contrary, Tel Aviv has continued its escalation. Last week, air force chief Amir Eshel warned of a “surprise war” with Syria, in which Israel would “utilize all the capabilities of the air force.” The country’s military chief of staff made a similar statement a day earlier.
That the most vocal critics of the Russian sale have been Israel and its staunch ally, the United States, indicates that both countries are well aware that the S-300s would most likely be used to counter Tel Aviv’s violations of Syrian airspace.
“As far as we are concerned, that is a threat,” said Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon. “If, by misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do.” Kerry stated that the sale “does put Israel at risk” - the only country he specifically mentioned and expressed concern for when criticizing Russia’s decision.
In Israel’s case, it would be a grave error for anyone in the Syrian opposition to believe that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It should not support Israeli violations of Syrian sovereignty, as Tel Aviv has proven itself time and again to be no friend of the Syrian people, whatever their political affiliations and sympathies. Indeed, it has made threatening statements during the revolution towards both the Syrian regime and rebels.
Welcoming Israeli involvement in Syria, or even keeping silent about it, would jeopardize domestic support for the opposition, given Israel’s history of aggression towards the country. This includes the occupation and annexation of the Golan Heights, the liberation of which is a cause dear to all Syrians, who also sympathize strongly with the plight of the Palestinians.
Of all Assad’s unpopular policies, his stand towards Israel is not one of them. His opponents must be careful not to play into the hands of propagandists who claim that they are merely puppets or accomplices in a Zionist / neo-conservative conspiracy.
There are Russian military sales to Damascus that should be of much greater concern than the S-300s, because they can be, and are, used against Syrian civilians and rebels. Alas, however, these missiles have received more Western attention, most likely because Israel’s security, military supremacy and regional hegemony are seen as paramount.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash