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The reported deployment of Russia’s most modern long-range air-defence system, the S-400 Triumf (SA-21), to Syria, allegedly in response to last week’s shooting down of a Su-24M Fencer by Turkey, has justifiably received worldwide media attention. For, if truly implemented, it would amount to the establishment of a no-fly zone which could impede the ability of the Western-led, anti-Daesh coalition to extend air strikes across all Syrian air space. Yet despite all the bluster, a fundamental question remains: has the Kremlin really deployed the S-400?
Missing Grave Stones
Dutiful observers may have noticed that the deployment of just two transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicles has been publicised. The 96L6 secondary-acquisition radar often associated with S-400 batteries has also been paraded before the media, no doubt to attract public attention. But what is still missing from public view is the most vital element of the system – the 92N6 Grave Stone combat-engagement radar, which simultaneously serves as the command centre of a battery. There is no evidence of the deployment of even a single Grave Stone system to Syria.
While the two TELs known to be deployed are fewer than the minimum size of an S-300PM or S-400 battery (6–8 TELs), and can still be deemed to be an operational asset, the system as a whole cannot operate and guide surface-to-air missiles against air targets without the Grave Stone radar. The apparent absence of this engagement radar makes the TELs and other equipment deployed just heaps of very expensive metal.
These are the grounds for suspecting that the S-400 deployment is, in fact, just another PR exercise. This may seek to accomplish three possible Moscow objectives: domestic propaganda; force the Western-led coalition to co-ordinate its activities with Russia; and to avoid annoying the Israelis.
Striking a deal with Israel
There were rumours that the understanding that Russia would not deploy long-range air-defence systems to Syria was a key element of the deal between Israel and Russia concluded in September, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow accompanied by his chief of general staff, head of military intelligence, and the head of Israel’s Security Council. It is easy to see why the introduction of Russian air defences is of particular concern to Israel. Hizbullah – the Shia-aligned, Iranian-funded and Lebanese-based militia – is currently operating in Syria; given that this development is seen as a vital threat to the Jewish state, the hardening of the air defences above Syria could threaten Israel’s ability to hit Hizbollah.
That is why it was rumoured that the Israelis let Moscow know that deployment of air defences capable of impeding Israeli air operations in the southern part of Syria would mean that Russia would take ‘full responsibility’ for any potential Hizbullah attacks on Israel. Since Moscow does not have full control over Hizbullah, it cannot restrict the organisation’s movements. The Israeli warning might have been an important consideration in the Kremlin’s possible decision to have actually avoided deploying any advanced air-defence system to Syria.
Smoke and mirrors
But at the same time, the Russian president cannot afford to sit idly by domestic public opinion is asking for retribution in the wake of Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet. So the announcement of the alleged deployment of the S-400 system fulfils a real domestic political requirement. And it also provides Moscow with an additional advantage: by claiming to have deployed a sophisticated air-defence system, Russia may be attempting to force the international coalition to think twice before undertaking air strikes in Syria without consultations with Moscow.
This is not the first time the Kremlin has engaged in such smoke-and-mirror tactics. It is useful to recall how diligently the deployment of the 96L6 acquisition radar (associated with S-400, but not representing any real shooting capability) was ‘leaked’ in early November by the simple expedient of using Kremlin-affiliated Twitter users. Western governments did not buy this trick at the time, and they should be careful about buying it again now. For all these tricks are part of hybrid war – this time, being fought against the West in Syria.
Dr Igor Sutyagin is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI.