Iranian Missile

Iran has been vocal about its intention to upgrade Syria’s air defenses in the face of ongoing Israeli bombings. Yet if Tehran takes genuine moves towards implementing this stated goal, Israel will undoubtedly take preventative military action, as has been the case throughout the past decade.

On February 24, Iranian state television reported Tehran’s intention to supply Damascus with its advanced indigenous long-range air defense missile systems.

“Syria needs to rebuild its air defense network and needs precision bombs for its warplanes,” the report said. “We will likely see Iran supply defense radars and missiles, such as the Khordad 15 system, to bolster Syria’s air defenses.”

Any deployment of the Khordad 15 would almost certainly entail immediate Israeli attacks. The Iranian-made system carries Sayyad-3 missiles with an alleged range of 120 miles, which could limit Israel’s air campaign in Syria if deployed successfully.

It’s interesting that Iran has been pushing for air defenses in Syria for at least two years, as an unidentified intelligence source reported to Newsweek in January. Specifically, Iran has assisted Syria in upgrading its radars as part of this effort.

New Sayyad 4B missiles with a range of 186 miles are rumored to be part of the Bavar-373 air defense system that Tehran plans to deploy. Iran asserts that this weapon system is on par with the cutting-edge Russian S-400.

The source hinted that a possible goal of this project is “to allow independent Iranian operation of air defense systems from within parts of Syria.” This would indicate that if the Khordad 15 or Bavar-373 systems were ever deployed, they would be under the complete control and operation of the Iranian military.

In this respect, the arrangement would be analogous to Russia’s deployment in 2018 of an S-300 system with a “Syrian” veneer. For the past ten years, Moscow has also pledged to enhance Syrian air defenses.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did not mention Iran while discussing the Israeli bombings in an interview with Russian state media in May 2018. Instead, he said that his forces could only Strengthen their air defenses with help from Moscow.

“Our air defense is much stronger than before, thanks to Russian support,” he said then, before acknowledging that much of it had been destroyed during the civil war by rebels and Israeli attacks.

“The only option is to improve our air defense, it is the only thing we can do, and we are doing it,” he said.

Moscow considered shipping S-300s to Damascus in 2013, the same year Israel began its current air campaign against Iran and its allies in Syria, but finally decided not to due to strong opposition from the United States and Israel.

After an older Syrian S-200 missile unintentionally knocked down a Russian military shipment in the fall of 2018, Moscow delivered an S-300 system to intercept assaulting Israeli warplanes.

There was only one reported the launch of a “Syrian” S-300 at an Israeli airstrike in May 2022, and it did not appear to be an intentional attempt to down an Israeli plane. In August of the following year, Russia withdrew the battery, ending the charade and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that its deployment was symbolic rather than practical.

While Iranian personnel would most likely similarly control any advanced systems Tehran transfers to Syria, there would be a crucial difference in their rules of engagement.

During its September 2015 military intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia set up a communications network with the Israeli military that it has kept open to this day. Despite having the most advanced long-range air defenses and fighter jets deployed in Syria and controlling much of its airspace, Russia did little to stop or even condemn the hundreds of Israeli attacks targeting Iranian soldiers and its backed militias.

On the other hand, Iran is an enemy of Israel, and there is no doubt that it would not, unlike Russia, attempt to use whatever air defense it deploys in Syria against Israeli warplanes. That is another reason why Israel will surely attack any system Iran tries to deploy.

This has already been done before. In April 2018, an Israeli airstrike on the T-4 airbase in central Syria destroyed an Iranian short-range air defense system called Tor, which was made in Russia. Seven Iranian soldiers were killed in the attack.

Israel has not stopped its airstrike assault. Since the civil conflict began in 2011, it launched its “deadliest” attack on Damascus in February. According to reports, the attack was aimed at a conference between Syrian and Iranian drone manufacturing experts in the capital.

Syrian authorities have called on Tehran and its various militias to avoid using its territory to attack Israel, as they want to avoid triggering a full-blown war. Damascus has reason to fear any full-scale Israeli retaliation. 

In February 2018, Israel estimated it destroyed nearly half of all Syrian air defenses following an escalation of clashes with Iranian forces. With Russia focused on Ukraine, Syria no doubt wants to prevent a full-scale and destructive Iran-Israel confrontation from raging on its soil.

The Iranian assessment from the 24th also mentioned an unusual fact: the Syrian air force could use more precision-guided weapons. Like the country’s air defenses, Syrian fighter jets are hopelessly outdated. 

Despite Syria’s best efforts, its MiG-29 Fulcrums have worn down from their extensive use. Around the middle of 2020, Russia announced that it had supplied the air force with updated MiG-29s.

However, it was a ruse to hide the delivery to Libya of unmarked MiG-29s via the Russian airbase in western Syria. Now that Russia is embroiled in the Ukraine conflict, it is less likely to provide new fighters to a cash-strapped Damascus.

Iran could use its experience in modifying its old Russian-made Su-22 and Su-24 to carry long-range cruise missiles in order to improve the Syrian air force. However, it’s highly improbable that it will be able to modernize that outdated air force to the point where it can really oppose Israeli Air Force operations over Syria.

The February 24 report was significant since it showed Iran’s true intentions and goals in Syria, but it’s still highly doubtful that Iran will prove capable of creating strong air defense capabilities in that war-torn Arab state.