A hat tip to the gang at Strategy Page, who discovered an important tidbit in the aftermath of the recent assassination of a Syrian general in Lebanon.
Most media accounts focused on the death of Syrian Brigadier General Mohammad Sulaiman, who was killed by a sniper in northern Lebanon on August 2nd. Officially, Tel Aviv has denied any involvement in Sulaiman's assassination, although the operation has the trappings of an Israeli operation.
Sulaiman has long been an Israeli target, given his role in supplying weapons to Hizballah. For years, the Syrian general was a key player in the transfer of military hardware from Iran to the terrorist group. The shipments were, of course, routed through Damascus, with Sulaiman ensuring that they wound up in Hizballah's hands.
But the general's death also coincided with one of his most important deliveries. According to Strategy Page, the Syrians recently transferred a number of SA-8 SAM launchers to Hizballah, upgrading air defenses in Lebanese territory controlled by the terrorist organization.
While the SA-8 is hardly state-of-the-art, it is a major improvement for Hizballah. Introduced in the 1970s, the SA-8 was designed to protect mobile targets, including troop and armored formations. However, some countries (including Syria) use it for point defense of fixed installations. Hizballah will likely employ the SA-8 (NATO designation: Gecko) in a similar role.
Deployment of the SA-8 in Lebanon is significant for several reasons, beyond the improved defense capabilities for Hizballah. It's worth remembering that Syria is a poor country and wouldn't part with air defense hardware, unless there was something better to replace it.
Could the SA-8 transfer to Hizballah signal the arrival of a more sophisticated air defense system in Syria? That's what some analysts believe, noting that Iran may be funding an air defense modernization for Damascus.
In recent years, the Syrians have expressed interest in several advanced air defense systems, including the Russian-built SA-15, SA-17 and S-300. Of that group, the SA-15 and SA-17 are the most likely candidates. The SA-15 is a state-of-the-art, short-range system (6 NM) that has already been acquired by Iran and other countries. It offers excellent protection against tactical aircraft, cruise missiles and even some types of precision-guided munitions.
By comparison, the SA-17 (NATO designation: Grizzly) is a medium-range system, capable of engaging targets up to 30 miles away. The Grizzly can also handle a variety of targets. Russian designers envisioned the SA-17 and SA-15 as replacements for the SA-6 GAINFUL and the SA-8, which have been mainstays of the Syrian air defense network for decades. In that sense, acquisition of the SA-15 or SA-17 would represent logical upgrades for Damascus.
While purchase of the long-range S-300 is a possibility, that option is considered remote. Not only is the S-300 much more expensive, its extended range would pose an immediate threat to Israeli flight operations and invite an immediate, preemptive attack from the IAF.
After losing scores of SAM launchers and radars to Israeli attack over the past 30 years, it's uncertain if Damascus would risk such a costly system to the threat posed by the IAF. On the other hand, acquisition of the SA-15 or SA-17 would be far less provocative, while still providing improved air defense of Syrian territory.
Whatever Damascus has in mind, it is also likely that the SA-8s in Lebanon will be hard-wired into Syria's air defense network. That will not only improve situational awareness for Hizballah operators, it will also extend the Syrian IADS into Lebanon, providing a greater buffer against Israeli air attack.
Not that the IAF will lose any sleep over those Gecko batteries in Lebanon. The capabilities of the SA-8 are well known, and it poses only a modest threat to IAF aircraft. But, having been embarrassed by Israeli raids in 2003 and 2007, the Syrians are looking for any way to extend the reach and coverage of their air defenses. Moving SA-8s into Lebanon satisfies that goal, while (potentially) creating room for more sophisticated SAM systems on Syrian soil.