From the perspective of the Kremlin, Syria has been a great success. Following the surprisingly successful organisation of a transatlantic response to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria not only managed to prop up the Assad regime and reverse the course of the civil war, it also made sure that the Russian Navy would get a naval base in the Mediterranean. And most importantly: it forced the West to again talk directly with the Kremlin.
This was not only a case of Russia playing a rather mediocre hand very well, but also of several events outside of Putin’s control lining up favourably. These include both Iran and Hezbollah intervening, as well as the Turkish turn-around following the failed coup of 2016. The introduction of Russian long-range air-defence system, including the S-400, into Syria caused further alarm amongst western observers, with some going as far as stating that no assets in theatre beyond the F-22 Raptor “has any ability to operate and survive” inside the 400 km range of the system’s 40N6 missile.
I have earlier on the blog cautioned against drawing rings on maps and stating that they are any kind of steel domes inside which anything and everything will be shot down, and this is very much the case for the SAM’s at Khmeimim Air Base as well. The latest strikes on targets in western Syria, including those well-within 100 km of Khmeimim AB, showed that coalition aircraft can strike presumably protected targets without issue. And not only that, if one looks closely at the map, the 400 km range extends well beyond Cyprus. The very same Cyprus which was the base of the RAF aircraft participating in the strikes. In other words, British aircraft took off and landed inside the stated range of the system, and all cruise missiles, both ship- and air-launched, penetrated the bubble without seemingly any of them having been intercepted.
The short answer is that Russia, according to Washington, didn’t try. There is said to have be no indication that the S-400 was fired against anything, and most likely this was a political decision. However, it does tell you something.
If Russia had the magical steel dome that some lay out A2/AD to be, why didn’t they at least swat down some of the cruise missiles, even if they decided to leave the aircrafts themselves (or rather, their pilots) alone? At the crucial moment, Russia decided not to try to protect the assets of their ally. Whatever the reason, the result is a razed block in the Syrian capital.
However, while there without doubt are intelligence services around the world plotting the decision as yet another data point, the immediate outcome isn’t necessarily too dramatic. As TD noted, the West will continue to act like Russia didn’t blink, and Russia will continue to claim that they control the skies over (western) Syria.
The problem is that while Russia might be the great power on location in Syria, the other actors, including Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all have their own agendas as well. More importantly, it is highly doubtful that any of them would hesitate to jump the Russian ship if they saw more benefits to be gained elsewhere.
Enter Israel, which is likely the western state that has been cooperating most effortlessly with Russia. In part this stems from a pragmatism that is a strong part of Israeli foreign policy, but it should also be noted that current defence minister Lieberman (and a sizeable Israeli minority) is in fact born in the Soviet Union. By most accounts the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement is working nicely, with Russia more or less accepting Israeli strikes on targets in Syria.
Israel has on the whole tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, in no small part likely based on the experiences from the Lebanese civil war. However, a red line has always been drawn at the “transfer of advanced weaponry” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What exactly constitutes “advanced weapons” is left open, but it is usually taken to include long-range rockets and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli answer to transfers has been air strikes, often carried out with stand-off weaponry from Lebanese or Israeli airspace.
As the war has been dragging on, the Israeli involvement has deepened at the same time as the Iranian impact on the ground has increased. While Assad constitutes a know quantity, Israel has been extremely wary of the long-term impact of allowing Iran a foothold in the region. And while brig. gen. (res.) Shafir of the Israeli Air Force a decade ago confidently could say that Iran is isolated in the Muslim world, recent developments have opened up avenues of approach for Teheran on a broader scale than has been seen before. The recent downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and the following air raids (including the first downing of an Israeli fast jet in a very long time) has increased the temperature further.
A very worrying detail was the fact that Israeli media claims that the aftermath of the raid left Israeli prime minister Netanyahu with the impression that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria. The problem here then is that the logical conclusion is that Israel will have to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria alone, and while I doubt that anyone inside the IDF is dusting off the plans for a drive to Damascus just yet, a more comprehensive air campaign aimed at severely crippling the Iranian forces in Syria might be in the cards.
While this kind of Israeli-Iranian showdown is bad enough in and by itself, the big kicker is how that would reflect upon Russia. Having two gangs fight it out on what should ostensibly be your backyard does not leave the onlookers with the feeling that you are in control, no matter how often you say so. In addition, if Russia goes through with the idea to supply the S-300PMU-2 to Assad, this opens up further risks of losing face. While the S-300 is one notch below the S-400, the system is vastly superior to anything currently in operation by the Syrians themselves. As such, it would likely be a prime target in any Israeli air campaign, and echoing the aerial battles of 1982, it would likely be destroyed sooner rather than later.
This all would leave Russia in a bad light, and erase much of the gains in prestige and diplomacy that the Syrian intervention has so far given Russia (in certain places, one should add, as others are less impressed by people regularly bombing hospitals and supporting dictators who use chemical weapons). While attempts at predicting Putin’s next moves are notoriously hard, it is safe to say that he has not shown an inclination to count his losses and leave the table. Instead, when the rest of the players believe him to have overplayed his hand, what usually happens seems to be that Putin will press on regardless. And there’s no telling whether his next move would come in Syria, or somewhere else.