Syria’s air defense is dilapidated; Russia controls defense systems

Syrian regime soldiers near an SA-5 missile in 2021 (The Drive)

Syrian regime soldiers near an SA-5 missile in 2021 (The Drive)


Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi

Five years ago, the Syrian regime forces shot down an Israeli F-16 warplane while it was bombing Iranian targets in Syria.

The downing of the US-made fighter aircraft did not stop the Israeli raids but rather intensified them on Iranian sites and others belonging to the Syrian regime.

On the other hand, the regime announces in a repeated statement by the official news outlets that “Syria’s air defense intercepted several missiles,” without full details about the nature of the targets or the results of the bombing.

On July 2, shrapnel from a Syrian SA-5 missile belonging to the Russian-made SAM air defense system fell inside the occupied territories, specifically in the southern city of Rahat, without being confronted by the Israeli air defenses, thinking that it would explode in the air, according to the Israeli reports.

The missile that fell deep inside Israel was manufactured 60 years ago, which raises questions about the air defenses of the Syrian regime, their actual ability to repel Israeli air attacks against Syrian civilian airports and military sites, or Iranian military sites and shipments, and the reasons why the regime did not use advanced defense systems like the Russian Air Force (S-300 and S-400) and mobile Pantsir vehicles.

Since the beginning of this year, Israel has bombed targets in Syria eight times, in the governorates of Damascus and its suburbs, Aleppo, Tartus, Hama, Quneitra, and Homs.

Deconfliction mechanisms, Russian decision 

Russian forces officially entered the battle line between the Syrian regime and the armed opposition factions on September 30, 2015, and the Russians used warplanes, which achieved a qualitative advantage for the regime, which made it actually recover dozens of Syrian cities, villages, and towns that were controlled by the opposition between 2011 and 2015. It also deployed long-range air defense systems (S-300 and S-400).

Moscow resorted to signing agreements to prevent collisions with Israeli forces, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and they worked to build a special mechanism to prevent friction in Syria, according to statements by the former spokesperson for the Israeli occupation army, Ronen Manelis in 2022.

Despite this agreement, the Syrian regime’s air defenses shot down a Russian plane in 2018 while it was responding to an Israeli aggression, prompting the two sides to pledge again not to clash.

Despite the deployment of these defensive air systems, the Syrian regime did not use them to repel Israeli raids.

The defected military pilot, Major Youssef Hammoud, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime’s air defenses have already possessed mobile Pantsir missile systems (self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery systems) since 2005, but they, along with the S-300 system, are under Russian control, and the regime cannot use them without permission, including reconnaissance operations, monitoring, detection and missile launch.

Hammoud added that there is a Russian operations room that controls these systems and the process of moving them and deploying them in different regions.

According to the Russian-Israeli agreement, the regime cannot use these systems, so it relies on old air defenses.

What are the air defense and armament capabilities of the Syrian regime?

The regime’s air defenses consist of 32 mixed missile brigades, including 170 missile battalions, in addition to 3,000 artillery of various calibers (23-57 mm) and 210 reconnaissance stations for air targets.

The Syrian regime has very short, short, medium, and long-range air defense systems.

Very short range: Cobra, Igla, Strela, Osa, 23mm artillery, 57mm artillery.

Short term: Kvadrat, Pechora, Pantsir.

Midrange: Volga, Buk.

Long range: “S300”, “S400”.

Source: Former Staff Colonel Khaled al-Mutlaq in a study published by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies 2020.

A former officer in the armaments sector, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that most of the weapons and ammunition that the regime used to obtain from other countries for long periods of time are worn out and unusable.

He stated that the Syrian regime obtained Scud missiles from Russia in 1999, but they were old and had been slightly modified and entered service, and they are not as powerful and ready as they should be.

In 2012, the Syrian regime obtained rocket-propelled mortars with a range of 40 kilometers, produced by the Russian Roso company, and the shipments reached Syria.

After discovering that the shipments contained technical defects, the Syrian regime contacted the producing company without receiving any response. The same applies to shipments and other weapons in various sectors, including air defenses.

Unmodified air defense systems

In 2022, Russia decided to withdraw the S-300 air defense system stationed near the city of Masyaf, northwestern Syria.

The Russian forces transferred the system’s radar to the Hmeimim base, while the S-300 battery was transferred to the port of Tartus, and from there, it was loaded onto a Russian ship heading to the port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, according to what was shown by satellite images published by the Israeli space intelligence company ImageSat International.

Currently, the Syrian regime possesses the S-200 air defense system, as Russia withdrew from delivering the S-300 system to the Syrian regime in 2018 after a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow, although this system is considered one of the best in the world in its category, according to a study by the Harmoon Center published in 2020.

For Russia, the presence of Russian air defense systems comes to protect its forces and military bases in Syria, according to what Russia Today reported in 2018.

Major Youssef Hammoud told Enab Baladi that the regime currently possesses the S-200 air defense system, and it is under the management of the Air Defense Command, which controls the launch, after obtaining permission from the Staff of the Ministry of Defense.

Hammoud explained that the Syrian air defense systems have not been modernized for a long time, despite the arrival of military technical teams from North Korea and Iran before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, and they were briefed on detection, reconnaissance and radar stations and tried to develop them.

In a study by former Staff Colonel Khaled al-Mutlaq, published by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies in 2020, the Syrian forces depend on weapons imported from the former Soviet Union and Russia now.

These weapons do not have systems with high accuracy, and they are called one-time-use weapons because of the negatives that appear after the first real battle in which the weapon is used.

Most of the technical and electronic capabilities of the Syrian weapons in the air defense sector have vanished, and the technical personnel have not been able to develop these systems or find a real alternative to them.

Although the Syrian regime imported a number of modern systems (Pantsir), they were not in sufficient numbers to cover all Syrian airspace.

Modern systems that form multiple layers of coverage have not been established, as they were in the 1970s, and the development of these systems should be complete and not partial, as happened in the 1990s.

The former officer in the armaments sector told Enab Baladi that the regime forces did not possess real equipment to confront any external aggression or war, and this does not only include air defense systems, but also the ground forces.

According to the Global Fire Power website, which specializes in the military capabilities of armies, the Syrian army ranks 64th out of 145 countries, while Israel ranks 18th among the most powerful armies in the world.

According to the site, Israel excels in terms of air forces and manpower, while the Syrian side excels in terms of artillery and tanks, given that this superiority comes in terms of the numbers of existing military units, not from the technical side.



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