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Can Iran Boost Syria's Air Defenses To The Detriment Of Israel?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen near a "3 Khordad" system which is said to had been used to shoot down a U.S. military drone, undated
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen near a "3 Khordad" system which is said to had been used to shoot down a U.S. military drone, undated

Tehran's new military agreement with Damascus has strengthened Syria's chances of receiving Iranian designed and produced air defense systems to boost the war-torn country's inefficient and weak anti-air networks.

As a part of the new agreement, Tehran and Damascus confirmed that they have pledged to upgrade Syria's air defenses. The confirmation was officially announced last week, when the Islamic Republic's Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Baqeri (Bagheri), visited Damascus.

However, the details of the agreement remained confidential.

Immediately after inking the agreement, Baqeri, a member of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), also held a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Defense Minister.

Evidence suggests that Baqeri and the Syrian Defense Minister, General Ali Abdullah Ayoub, achieved the agreement after a series of highly confidential negotiations.

In recent times, the Islamic Republic has repeatedly presented three domestic air defense systems named as "3 Khordad", "15 Khordad" and "Bavar 373" as its "glorious" examples of progress.

The possibility of supplying Syria with these systems seems to be on Tehran-Damascus' agenda.

While unveiling the "15 Khordad" in the second quarter of last year, the Iranian military boasted that it was more potent than the American Patriot system.

Shortly afterward, the "3 Khordad" system, with a range of 200 km shot down the wide-body and expensive American surveillance drone, RQ-4A Global Hawk BAMS-D, on June 20, 2019, near the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Some experts consider this a big achievement for Iran's air defense technology.

The new Iran-Syria military agreement was signed six months after a U.S. drone killed the Chief-Commander of the IRGC' Qods Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, on January 3, 2020, outside Baghdad international airport.

Meanwhile, Syria is under heavy pressure from the United States and Israel.

Washington has recently implemented the Caesar Act to exert more pressure on Damascus.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, also known as the Caesar Act, is legislation that sanctions the Syrian government, including its president, Bashar al-Assad, for alleged war crimes against the Syrian population. The bill has not been passed into law. Instead, parts of it were incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, making it unlikely that the original bill will be revisited.

At the same time, Israel has relentlessly continued airstrikes on Syria to "hit Iran and its allies."

Furthermore, field evidence shows that Syria's long-standing weakness in air defenses has not been allayed even by the Russian S-300 system installed in the war-torn country. Despite the Russian S-300, Israel has continued striking targets deep in Syria by using the Lebanese air space.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made numerous trips to Moscow to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from handing over the S-300 system to the Syrian army.

However, after an unprecedented Israeli attack on the Syrian port of Latakia in mid-September 2018, which resulted in the downing of a Russian transport plane by Syrian friendly fire killing fifteen Russian soldiers, Moscow handed over the S-300 system to Damascus.

Immediately after that, the Israeli attacks on Syria were interrupted.

Later, the strikes resumed and expanded with more frequency, feeding the rumor that Putin may have promised Netanyahu that the S-300 system would not be used during the Israeli air attacks on Syria.

After visiting Damascus and witnessing a devastating Israeli airstrike on Syria, the chairman of Iran's influential parliamentary Commission for National Security and Foreign Policy at the time, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, wondered why Syria's S-300 systems were not activated during such attacks.

Russian officials have not yet commented on the allegations, preferring to remain silent.

Meanwhile, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Tehran, Amir Mousavi, told the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) on Saturday, July 11, that "the operation of S300 systems is not yet in Syria's hands."

According to Amir Mousavi, comments by the Syrian president and defense minister during their meeting with the chief of the Iranian Armed Forces last week indicate that "the newly signed accord between Tehran and Damascus is a strategic and comprehensive military agreement." At the same time, most of it is still "confidential," Mousavi asserted.

Moreover, Mousavi maintains that in addition to advanced air defense systems and weaponry, Iran will provide Syria with anti-air systems that could "bring about sweeping changes in the region's equations and give Syria strategic military capabilities."

Based on Amir Mousavi's comments in his interview with ISNA, Iran may try to bring Lebanon into the Tehran-Damascus agreement. Nonetheless, given the West's pressure on Beirut, it will not be an easy task.

The editor-in-chief of Raialyoum, an Arab world digital news and opinion website, Abdel Bari Atwan, has also maintained that the military agreement between Iran and Syria will change the military balance in West Asia.

Writing on the Pan-Arab website, Atwan said, according to the agreement, the Islamic Republic has agreed to deliver Bavar 373 and Khordad 3 missile systems that compete with Russia's S300 air defense system.

"Tehran-Damascus agreement also sends a message to the United States reminding Washington that Iran and Syria have formed a long-lasting coalition," Atwan said, adding, "the agreement may change the rules of the game in Syrian airspace. Iran's move will strengthen several fronts that are important in a comprehensive confrontation in the region."

On the other hand, the Israeli daily, Jerusalem Post says transferring Iranian 3 Khordad air defense systems to Syria is a "threat" for Israel. Forbes also believes that Israel will never allow Syria to be equipped with a reliable air defense system.

But Israel has proven time and again in successive military campaigns that it is capable of jamming and neutralizing enemy air defenses and conducting preemptive attacks on missile batteries.

The Israeli government, struggling with the coronavirus outbreak followed by an escalating economic crisis in recent days, has not yet had a chance to react to the new Tehran-Damascus agreement.

A Pentagon spokesman has also responded to the new agreement by saying that the U.S. sole mission in Syria is defeating ISIS, and Washington's position has not changed.

Israel's former Defense Minister, Naftali Bennett, said in early spring that Iran's presence in Syria was waning due to constant Israeli attacks. However, the signing of a new Iran-Syria agreement could reflect Tehran and Damascus leaders' belief that their more than four-decades-old strategic ties are unbreakable, and despite suffering damages and casualties it is slowly but continuously move from strength to strength.