In September, a Syrian chemical-weapons plant was destroyed, most likely by Israeli airplanes, not far from a high-tech Russian anti-aircraft installation. Yet Russian troops did not respond to—or attempt to prevent—this attack on their Syrian ally. Nor has Moscow acted to protect its coalition partners from numerous other Israeli airstrikes over the past few years. Likewise, Russia did not retaliate when the U.S. launched cruise missiles at a Syrian air-force base in April. Guy Plopsky concludes that, despite repeated threats, the Kremlin wishes to avoid conflict with either America or Israel:
Moscow’s warnings to Israel are . . . directed more toward the Syrian and Russian public than they are toward Jerusalem. Offering no threatening response to Israeli airstrikes would make the Kremlin appear weak, prompting pro-Assad factions to question Moscow’s commitment to the regime and weakening Russia’s influence.
At the same time, Russia has been rebuilding Syria’s air defenses in the hope that they would deter both Israel and the coalition from further strikes. Russia’s defense ministry has mentioned Syrian air defenses in warnings directed at coalition forces and has pledged to “increase [their] effectiveness.” . . .
As for Russia’s own air defenses, Moscow has not utilized them to defend Assad’s forces and is unlikely to do so for fear of an armed confrontation with the U.S. and its partners. Indeed, while Syrian fighters are known to have flown escort missions for Russian strike aircraft, the reverse has not occurred. Furthermore, like Israel, the U.S. maintains a de-confliction line with Russia and has developed agreements to avoid clashes. . . .
Contrary to Kremlin rhetoric, targeting stealth aircraft and cruise missiles remains a major challenge for Russian air defenses. Furthermore, due to the radar horizon limit, even non-stealth aircraft can significantly reduce detection by flying at very low altitudes. Also, sophisticated electronic-warfare systems can degrade the performance of enemy radar. Hence, at long ranges, [even the best Russian surface-to-air missiles] can realistically be expected to intercept only cumbersome targets successfully. . . .
This does not mean Russia’s air defenses in Syria should be neglected. On the contrary: Jerusalem and Washington must keep a close watch, particularly as the post-Islamic State stage of the Syrian conflict sets in.