“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.