Russia's New Missile Defense Arrives in Syria and That's Not All It's Doing to Stop Attacks

Russia has confirmed the delivery of its S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria, where Moscow has promised to upgrade allied defenses after they accidentally shot down one of its planes during an Israeli air raid.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting Tuesday that the S-300 system, which is capable of engaging both cruise missiles and aerial targets, had arrived in the war-torn country "as part of a number of measures aimed at strengthening the air defense systems in the Syrian Arab Republic, including, above all, the protection of our military personnel." Russia is a leading supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his seven-year war against rebels and jihadis sparked by a 2011 uprising backed by the West, Turkey and several Sunni Muslim monarchies.

Russia has attempted to balance between fellow Assad ally Iran and its archfoe Israel, but held Israel responsible for last month's incident in which older Russia-built Syrian defenses shot down a Russian Il-20 surveillance plane by mistake while trying to block an Israeli bombardment of a suspected Iranian weapons site in Latakia. In response, Shoigu vowed to improve the nation's defenses in a move that has upset the U.S. and Israel.

The minister said that the S-300 delivery included 49 pieces of equipment, including radars, control vehicles and four launchers. He added that it would take three months for the Syrian armed forces to operate the complex.

The Russian military fires an S-300 surface-to-air missile system during the 2016 Army Games "Keys to the Sky" competition at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia. Russian Ministry of Defense

The U.S. has criticized Russia's decision to supply the Syrian government, which it has targeted on two prior occasions in response to allegations of chemical weapons attacks. Though the Pentagon has said the scope of its involvement in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Washington officials such as national security adviser John Bolton have argued that U.S. forces would stay to deter Iranian influence.

Last month, Israel said it conducted more than 200 such attacks against suspected Iranian positions in Syria, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would continue bombing these such sites despite the new Russian defenses. Vladimir Mikheyev, first deputy director of Russia's state-owned Concern Radio-Electronic Technologies, said last week that "systems capable of combatting precision weapons—guided bombs and missiles that, perhaps, will be used by the same Israel, which has already stated that it will continue to target objects in the region—will be added to the conventional radar protection systems."

This system would reportedly detect any plane "operating on the runway, be it in Israel or Saudi Arabia or even in Europe." In addition to the S-300 delivery, Shoigu said Tuesday that the Russian military has "significantly strengthened and switched on the electronic warfare system and have added additional equipment there," giving the armed forces a "close zone of up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) and a far zone of 200 kilometers (124 miles) from where attacks in Syria were launched."

He also said that Russia has begun to send supplies to support a "unified control system of the entire air defense network" that would be operational by October 20.

Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu al-Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, August 20. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

The move comes at a time of already heightened tensions over the last Islamist-held province of Idlib in northwestern Syria. The U.S. has threatened to again intervene against the Syrian government should it pursue an all-out offensive on the area of some 3 million people, most of whom are civilians. Last month, hours before the Israeli attack on Latakia, Russia and Turkey announced a deal to prevent an attack there. The deal stipulates the withdrawal of all banned groups, including the jihadi coalition of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that dominates the province and the removal of heavy weapons by mid-October.

Syria has vowed to retake the entire country, however, including about a quarter of it that is in the hands of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces—and by force, if necessary. Unlike the opposition, the mostly Kurdish alliance has remained open to talks with the Syrian government, but talks have stalled as the two struggle to establish common ground over the country's future. Russia has also invited Kurdish groups to join a trilateral peace process also co-hosted by Iran and Turkey.