As the international community continues to debate whether to intervene in Syria's ongoing civil war, the Israelis are increasingly concerned about Syria—particularly the threatened introduction of Russian S-300s into its air-defense system.

Syria's efforts to modernize its air defenses are increasing the threat of a conflict suddenly erupting between Israel and its enemies, according to Israel's air force chief, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel.

“The Assad regime has already invested huge funding to achieve the best air defenses it could buy,” Eshel said at a recent Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies conference. That includes the SA-17, SA-22 and SA-24 and greater situational awareness after an earlier Israeli strike (AW&ST Oct. 22, 2012, p. 57).

Last week Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Moscow reporters that Russia has decided on delivering S-300s to help deter foreign intervention in Syria. His announcement came as the European Union let its arms embargo lapse, with Britain and France mulling publicly the possibility of arming rebels there. If delivered, the S-300 would increase the chances of a new regional conflict considerably, according to Eshel.

The S-300 is made to intercept ballistic missiles and aircraft at ranges of over 100 km (62 mi.). Exactly which model Russia intends to sell to the Syrians remains unknown, although Syria has asked in the past for the model referred to by NATO as the SA-10. The S-300PMU2 Favorit can launch six missiles at once and engage 12 targets simultaneously, both at high and low altitude. The missile interceptors used by the S-300PMU2 outmaneuver any modern fighter.

“The Russian sale of the S-300 to Syria is a massive game changer,” says Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If it is more than a matter of words, and actual transfers take place, it virtually ensures that the U.S.-Russian talks will be meaningless, sends warning signals about similar arms transfer to Iran, can drag Israel into the Syrian fighting, and would sharply alter U.S. and allied “no fly capabilities if the Syrians can quickly absorb the system and make it effective.”

On the surface, the S-300 may not appear to be a significant advancement over the S-200, Cordesman tells Aviation Week. But the S-300 is better at low altitudes, is harder to detect and jam, and the ground radar capabilities are much improved.

“This is the first meaningful advancement in surface-to-air missiles,” Cordesman says, noting that the system is “a serious threat to Israeli capabilities.”

But the system's merits are hard to gauge, because the mix of radars and the quality of the command post are not yet known and would provide better clues to the extent of the upgrade of Syria's overall air defense system, he says.

But it may take some time for Syria to integrate the S-300 into its operations, according to Yiftah Shapir, director of the military balance project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Syria cannot likely provide necessary resources for the system's integration without direct local Russian assistance, he says.

Integration would require a significant and prolonged investment to learn the system, establish facilities for operation and maintenance, and create and train operating units, Shapir says. It is highly questionable whether in its current state the Syrian military is able to invest the required manpower and resources for this purpose. Furthermore, it is doubtful that it will be able to secure the systems against an attack by the rebels.

Though a remote possibility, there is a concern that Syrian President Bashar al Assad might transfer the systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon. From Israel's point of view, such a development could be extremely serious and would invite retaliation.

Yet, larger geopolitics are having an immediate impact on Israel. Syria is “changing before our eyes. If it collapses tomorrow, we could find its vast arsenal dispersed and pointed at us from various directions,” said air force chief Eshel. “A surprise war could be born today in many forms. Lone incidents can escalate very quickly and obligate us to be prepared within hours to act to the edge of the spectrum . . . meaning using the full abilities of the Israel air force.”

Should Syria abruptly turn its thousands of rockets and missiles toward Israel, the nation is preparing, Eshel said.

“We have set some guidelines for when our interests are endangered: The transfer of quality armaments to hostile elements such as Hezbollah, or the transfer of chemical weapons for us is a red line, totally unacceptable.”

The air force is watching reports that Syrian troops and the Hezbollah stormed Al-Qasayr, the northwestern town which commands the high road from Syrian Homs to Lebanon's Hermel Mountains. This represents a strategic victory opening a travel route from Syria to hideouts in Lebanon.

If covered by advanced air defenses, any attacks on arms transfers would involve a major high-risk mission. According to Eshel and others, Israel has no choice but to find a way to achieve it under acceptable conditions.

Israel Defense Forces chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz echoed the message. “The chances of a multi-arena conflict breaking out are substantial,” he said at the conference. “In light of the region's instability, the military faces the possibility of a confrontation on multiple fronts, and is in a new reality which could change it completely.”