Russia and Syria are insisting that shipments of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems (similar to the U.S. Patriot) are still headed for Syria. Israel opposes selling S-300 to Syria and has been pressuring Russia to back off. This is a repeat of what Israel went through with Russia five years ago, when the S-300s were headed for Iran. Back in 2008, Israel and its Western allies bartered several items to get the Russians to back off. This included Israeli help for Russian efforts to build modern weapons and Western agreement to halt construction of an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe.
It’s unclear what, if any, goodies Russia is fishing for when it comes to the Syrian S-300s. There’s also the fact that Israel has expressed a willingness to play rough to prevent the S-300s from becoming operational if they do arrive in Syria. That’s because the S-300s are a threat to Israeli military and commercial aircraft. If the S-300 did show up in Syria (or Lebanon) Israel would probably attack it right away, before these systems could become operational. If Syria wanted to get the S-300s operational quickly they would need the help of Russians, who would probably become casualties from the Israeli air attacks. The Russians might risk it because they have seen their weapons used on the losing (Arab) side in the Middle East for over four decades. Sure would be nice to turn this around. That is not likely to happen but the Russians see an opportunity here.
For the S-300s to survive Israeli scrutiny and become operational in Syria Russia would have to move in a lot more troops, technicians, and other equipment. There would also have to be a lot of deception and shorter range (but instantly operational when they roll off the transport) mobile missile systems to provide air defense while the S-300s are made ready. That process would take days, if using highly trained and rehearsed Russian crews, and would spark a major Israeli military effort. It’s unclear if the Russians want that. The Russians would be up against more experienced and determined Israelis and risking another embarrassing defeat.
This game of bluff was played out by Russian and Israeli diplomats five years ago. But this time the missiles would threaten Israeli air space and Israel will not stand for it. The three Israeli air raids on Russian weapons in Syria this year were the Israeli response to Russians flying in more missiles (anti-ship and less capable anti-aircraft systems). The Russians can have no doubts that the Israelis are willing to kill Russians in order to save Israelis.
The S-300s, when operational, can detect and attack aircraft 200 kilometers away, deep inside Israel. Against this threat Israel has electronic protection on its warplanes, but these defenses are not perfect and commercial aircraft are unprotected. In short, Israel cannot afford to allow S-300s into the region, not with terrorist groups like Hezbollah or al Qaeda standing by to get their hands on these missile systems. The Russians could have delivered the S-300s three years ago, when they were ordered, but did not. The delay is all about the Russians understanding the Israeli situation and not wanting to trigger a response that would hurt Russia. The continued threats to deliver S-300s is, however, much less risky.
In late 2008, Israel persuaded Russia to publically announce that S-300 anti-aircraft missiles would not be sold to Iran. The Israelis would not reveal what they did to persuade the Russians to change their mind about the sale (which would have made it more difficult for Israeli jets to bomb Iranian nuclear weapons development facilities) but has since revealed that several deals were made to halt the S-300 shipments.
Two years later Russia announced it would repay Iran the $800 million paid for S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems that Russia refused to deliver. Russia had held up this sale for three years in the face of Western (especially Israeli) opposition. Russia sells Iran about $3 billion worth of goods (mostly industrial supplies, automobiles, and weapons) a year. So while the Iranians make a big deal about being angry at Russia over the S-300 deal, they need Russian imports. While Russia supports the export sanctions on Iran, the Russians are willing to slip through forbidden goods when asked. The loss of the S-300 system, and unwillingness of China to provide a similar system, does leave Iran vulnerable to air attack. Iran has since proclaimed that it has improvised, apparently with discreet help from China. While this provided less protection than the S-300s, Iran is not completely defenseless to air attack.