Russian military advisers are manning some of Syria‘s more sophisticated air defences – something that would complicate any future US-led intervention, the Guardian has learned.
The advisers have been deployed with new surface-to-air systems and upgrades of old systems, which Moscow has supplied to the Assad regime since the Syrian revolution broke out 21 months ago.
The depth and complexity of Syria’s anti-aircraft defences mean that any direct western campaign, in support of a no-fly zone or in the form of punitive air strikes against the leadership, would be costly, protracted and risky. The possibility of Russian military casualties in such a campaign could have unpredictable geopolitical consequences.
The upgrades were supplied by Moscow, which sees them as a bulwark against western-imposed regime change and protection of a longstanding investment in Syria. The country includes Russia‘s biggest electronic eavesdropping post outside its territory, in Latakia, and its toehold on the Mediterranean, a small naval base at Tartus.
Russian security and defence officials, who are notoriously loth to publicly comment on their operations abroad, have repeatedly denied providing explicit support for the Assad regime.
Over the weekend, the head of Russia’s ground forces air defence, Major General Alexander Leonov, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station: “Syria’s air-defence system is a no-nonsense force. As a result, no one has ever used serious air combat power against it.”
That “no-nonsense” force, the air defence command, comprises two divisions and an estimated 50,000 troops – twice the size of Muammar Gaddafi’s force – with thousands of anti-aircraft guns and more than 130 anti-aircraft missile batteries.
According to Jeremy Binnie, the editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, recent Russian deliveries include Buk-M2 and Pantsyr-S1 (known to Nato as SA-22) mobile missile launch and radar systems. Reports of the shipment of the modern long-range S-300 have not been confirmed, and the Syrian armed forces did not show off any S-300 missiles in a military display this year. It is possible they have been delivered but are not yet operational.
Guy Ben-Ari, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: “They don’t just sell the equipment. They also help man the crews and train the crews. Sometimes there is just no domestic capacity to run these systems, and that is the case in Syria where Syrian crews are not capable of using the equipment to its full capacity.”
Sources familiar with the Moscow-Damascus defence relationship confirmed the presence of Russian air-defence crews inside Syria. Their deployment would be a consideration when western contingency plans for Syria were being considered, they said.
Such a dense, layered and overlapping air-defence system would require a huge air campaign, heavily reliant on thousands of precision-guided missiles. The UK, France and other American allies in Europe used up their stocks of such weapons in Libya and although these are classified there have been reports that they have not yet returned to pre-Libya levels.
“We know they pretty much ran out of them at the end of Libya. Given budgetary constraints the Europeans are operating, and in an era where every euro spent on defence is very heavily scrutinised, it is a hard sell to restock on this stuff,” Ben-Ari said. “And it would not be enough to be at Libya levels. You would need far more for Syria.”
A Syrian air campaign would also require stealth aircraft and a great amount of signals intelligence, satellite imagery and aerial reconnaissance, all of which are US specialities. For all those reasons, Washington would not be able to “lead from behind” as it did in Libya.
Read More: Guardian