For Israel, It's Open Skies Over Syria and Iraq

7 MINS READOct 14, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
This picture taken on Aug. 25, 2019, from a tourist lookout point at an Israeli army outpost on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a directional sign for Damascus.

Syria and Iraq, struggling to cope with Israel's aerial might, want to bolster their air deterrent, but that could come with some unintended consequences.

(JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Syria and Iraq's inability to secure their airspaces from Israeli airstrikes will lead them to try and acquire better air defense systems.
  • New equipment, particularly from Russia, could increase the deterrent against Israeli strikes, but it won't provide a foolproof solution.
  • But even if Syria and Iraq gain more control over their airspace, their ability to shoot down Israeli aircraft could ignite new conflicts.

Syria and Iraq are facing a common conundrum in their respective skies: a persistent Israeli air campaign that has targeted Iranian and Iran-linked assets. Because of both countries' limited air defense capabilities, Israel has had free range to conduct its campaign. Now, however, the pair may be trying to rectify this disadvantage amid recent reports that Russia is considering the sale of high-end radar systems to unidentified Middle Eastern countries. If they made such a purchase, however, it could cause unexpected problems for Damascus and Baghdad: The systems won't be enough to completely halt the Israeli campaign, but they would pose a significant enough challenge to Israel's jets that their use could touch off a new round of conflict in the area.

The Big Picture

Throughout the Syrian civil war and the battle against the Islamic State, Iran has expanded the presence of its asymmetrical capabilities across the region. In response, Israel has launched an air campaign in Syria that has recently expanded into Iraq and Lebanon as well.

A Weak Defense

Israel has been conducting a daring air campaign in Syria since 2013. Initially, its warplanes targeted specific Iranian arms shipments bound for Hezbollah, but over time, it has expanded the offensive to include Iranian assets in Syria that could support attacks against Israel or sustain the logistical supply line to, and cooperation with, the Lebanese militant group. The overall intent of the campaign goes beyond the tactical interdiction of arms transfers, as Israeli leaders seek to stop Iran from permanently embedding itself in a territory so close to Israel itself.

In July and August, Israel expanded this campaign into Iraq and Lebanon. In Iraq, Israel has largely targeted stockpiles of weapons belonging to Iran-linked Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). In Lebanon, it took aim at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, a group that has fought alongside Hezbollah and Syrian government forces in Syria. The intensity of the strikes in Iraq and Lebanon has by no means reached the levels of Syria, but Israel's ability to easily conduct attacks there highlights just how accessible regional airspace is to Israeli operations.

This map shows the location of Israeli airstrikes in Syria and Iraq since January 2017.

Israel's impunity stems primarily from Syria and Iraq's limited air defense capabilities. Their weak defenses not only allow Israel to conduct air operations over these countries with virtually no losses (so far, Syria has managed to down only one Israeli F-16 aircraft, in February 2018), they also allow the country to maintain plausible deniability. Both Syria and Iraq operate mostly outdated, Cold War-era air defense systems that have deteriorated even further over the course of previous conflicts. 

With Russia's support, Syria has tried to rebuild its air defense capabilities during the civil war, acquiring a number of Russian systems such as the Pantsir-S1 point-defense systems, Buk-M2 midrange air defense systems and a limited number of wider-ranging S-300 batteries. While these systems constitute the components of a somewhat layered air defense, the number of systems in operation in Syria is ultimately insufficient to provide coverage beyond isolated, hardened bubbles. On top of that, the crews manning these more advanced systems have performed poorly, as demonstrated by their accidental downing of a Russian aircraft in September 2018 as they sought to fire on Israeli jets. In other cases, Syrian crews have fired missiles at Israeli planes long after the latter have made their strikes. In short, Syria's attempts to upgrade its system have fallen short of posing a real deterrent to Israel. 

Iraq, meanwhile, has entertained more ambitious plans, including a U.S. offer of an integrated air defense system. The delivery of such systems has been on indefinite hold, however, due to Baghdad's battle against the Islamic State. Iraq, however, has merely received eight Avenger systems (a U.S. system based on a Humvee platform that fires Stinger missiles and a .50-caliber gun for point defense), yet they can protect only individual military units rather than guard a wider area. More important elements of the package, such as surveillance radars and command-and-control systems, never arrived. What's more, even the F-16s that Iraq received can fire only air-to-air missiles with a relatively short range, limiting their capabilities in aerial combat. As a result of these weaknesses, Iraq has acquired Pantsir-S1 air defense systems from Russia, but their coverage is spotty at best.

The Paradox of Better Protection

Clearly, even the most modern elements of these limited air defense capabilities have failed to deter the Israeli air campaign. Both Syria and Iraq continue to look toward Russia for additional capabilities in their struggle to regain control of their airspace. Rumors abound of additional deliveries of S-300 and even S-400 systems, but none have appeared yet. More recently, Russia did announce that several Middle Eastern countries had signed contracts for the delivery of Resonance-NE radar systems; Syria and Iraq would be prime candidates to receive such systems due to their current shortcomings and their past purchases from Moscow. The Resonance-NE is essentially a large static radar, but it offers great range (up to 1,100 kilometers, or around 688 miles) and even some ability to detect more difficult targets like stealth aircraft or cruise missiles. Such a radar could help Syria and Iraq monitor their airspace more effectively — but that's not the same as actually giving the countries the ability to shoot down what's coming. For such a radar to be most effective, Syria and Iraq would still require more integrated air defense systems, as well as modern surface-to-air missile systems. 

Even if Damascus and Baghdad managed to acquire top-of-the-line Russian defense systems, both would still face many challenges in truly interdicting Israeli airstrikes.

Of course, the acquisition of such systems from Russia would come at a cost, particularly for Iraq, which has maintained a close security relationship with the United States since 2003. The United States has actively tried to dissuade countries from buying Russian military equipment through the threat of sanctions (such as the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act - CAATSA), and through the existing secondary effects of sanctions imposed on Rosoboronexport (Russia's state-owned arms sales enterprise). Washington has previously leveraged these threats against countries like Turkey and India, suggesting that such a course of action could upset the cooperative nature of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.

But even if Damascus and Baghdad managed to acquire top-of-the-line Russian defense systems, both would still face many challenges in truly interdicting Israeli airstrikes. For one, Syria and Iraq could struggle to distinguish between Israeli and U.S. aircraft given that the latter two fly a number of similar platforms. Any doubt could lead either to inaction, and thus exposure to Israeli strikes, or a dangerous miscalculation. Moreover, Israel can effectively jam enemy radar systems and air defenses. At the same time, it also boasts a significant standoff capability, which allows it to strike targets far beyond the limits imposed by air defenses through the use of air-launched cruise missiles or other long-range munitions. Israel has frequently resorted to such methods in its strikes in Syria, occasionally even launching munitions from aircraft flying over the Mediterranean Sea, west of Lebanon.

Beyond that, there's also a paradox facing Syria and Iraq: Significantly improving their respective air defense capabilities might not be entirely desirable. If Damascus or Baghdad were able to shoot down Israeli fighter aircraft, this could rapidly escalate hostilities, prompting Israel to retaliate directly against Syria or Iraq rather than the Iranian-linked assets they host. That's why Syria and Iraq are likely to proceed carefully as they weigh whether acquiring a lot more deterrence will actually make them more of a target in the long run.

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