By Bilal Y. Saab – Political space is opening up in the Arab world. While it is particularly difficult to speak with any degree of confidence on the ultimate trajectory of the Arab uprisings (with all their local variants), the process of democratization that is sweeping the region is likely to have a significant impact on how Arab societies and their soon-to-be representative governments make and conduct foreign and defense policy in the future. One key area of concern is the subject of regional arms control and disarmament.
Standing in the way of arms control and regional security in the Middle East are old conditions — territorial disputes, arms races, security dilemmas, historical rivalries, ideological radicalism, deep-seated fears of the other, and sectarian, religious, and ethnic animosities — that are well known and have been analyzed in some detail else-where. Because of the depth and scope of the political and security problems facing the Middle East, it is tempting to give up hope on the region and accept that no arms control initiative could ever be seriously entertained and practiced in that part of the world. Even those very few idealists who have retained their optimism rarely miss an opportunity to add one important caveat: it will take a very long time before arms control is dealt with in a serious fashion in the Middle East, a region that is deeply troubled, hopelessly divided, and heavily militarized.
Nobody doubts that it will take years, if not generations, for arms control to take root in the Middle East. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict showing no sign of resolution anytime soon, increasing regional uncertainties caused by the political transitions, a raging civil conflict in Syria that not only threatens the stability of neighboring countries but also risks redrawing the regional security map, and talk of possible military action by Israel or the United States against Iran to thwart its nuclear program, the prospect of countries in that part of the world cooperating with each other seems unthinkable at present. Thus the unprecedented move of placing real, verifiable, and mutual limitations on these countries’ sovereignty, state secrets, and defense armaments for the collective goal of reducing regional insecurity seems even more far-fetched.
Nobody doubts that the Middle East will experience growing pains should it restart arms control and regional security talks, a diplomatic process that has been interrupted since the 1995 collapse of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) multilateral negotiations. Postponed indefinitely due to Israeli concerns about its timing and agenda, the December 2012 conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East is an example of one missed opportunity to restart the process. Any casual reading of the arms control experience between the Soviet Union (later Russia) and the United States, as well as that among European nations after the end of the Cold War, will amply show that arms control — already a counterintuitive concept and exercise even to the most liberal and open-minded — is a tough and complex business.
Over the years, the ills of the Middle East and their effects on arms control have been properly diagnosed. However, more precise analysis of the likely causes of these issues and how they specifically impact regional security and arms control is still needed. It is evident that the region suffers from profound security problems and acute democratic deficits that will discourage even the most passionate regional security and arms control advocate. But these are outcomes, not causes of these conditions. A far more useful analytical approach to studying regional security and arms control would pay much closer attention to individual actors and the domestic contexts of their foreign and defense policies. Such an approach for the Middle East is long overdue.
Prior to the Arab uprisings, the lack of scrutiny on the domestic contexts of Arab foreign and defense policies was justified by pointing to the fact that such policies were the exclusive domain of a select few (i.e., monarchs, autocrats, generals, and warlords) and their close advisors. Under these political circumstances, inputs and pressures from actors outside that small decision-making circle on the foreign policy process were arguably minimal. With the exception of political psychologists, very few foreign policy analysts specializing in the Middle East saw much analytical value in studying the domestic context of Arab foreign policies.4 As a result, the “Arab foreign policy black box” was largely kept closed. Now, the current dramatic changes spreading throughout the Middle East will force analysts to finally open it.
While there are cultural, societal, political, and historical similarities among the countries of the Middle East, and while democratic transitions tend to unleash all too familiar forces in politics and society, it would be wrong to treat foreign policy and decision-making processes in the region as homogeneous. Indeed, because each country undergoing transition or tumult is unique and at a different stage in its history with regard to political maturity, social cohesion, and economic development, the effects of change throughout the region and their implications for arms control will not be uniform.
A case in point is, for example, the divergent paths that Egypt and Syria have taken since 2011. Even though the process of change was violent and chaotic in its first few months in Egypt, Cairo managed to transition from authoritarianism to representative government following the ouster of President Husni Mubarak and the holding of free national elections. Syria, on the other hand, had a much less fortunate trajectory, and because of President Bashar al-Asad’s refusal to address the legitimate demands of the populace, the initially peaceful uprising gradually morphed into a civil war that is threatening to rip the country apart and destabilize neighboring countries. Libya is somewhere in between, escaping the civil conflict and disintegration that Syria is experiencing, but at the same time undergoing acute political instability and militia rule given the massive void left by the previous regime of Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi. Tunisia’s transition was the most peaceful given the relatively quick collapse of the previous government of President Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali and the vital pacifying role played by its civil society, but this hardly suggests that the process of democratic change will be smooth or problem-free, given the growing role of Salafi politics and resurfacing of Islamist militancy in the country and more broadly in northern Africa.
Yet despite all these variances and their implications for the future of arms control and regional security, countries in the region will experience similar challenges as they go through the difficult and much-interrupted process of state-, and in some cases, nation- building. All countries in the Middle East will face common problems and difficulties as they try to elect wise and accountable leaders, build institutional capacity, promote bureaucratic effectiveness and efficiency, and pursue economic development. Progress on these areas will affect, in dissimilar ways depending on the local context, the ability of Middle Eastern countries to successfully engage any potential arms control agenda, or more specifically, the concept and goal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
This is the introduction of an article that appeared in full in the Middle East Journal, Volume 67, Issue 3 (Summer 2013), pp. 426-436. The article is available for subscribers to the MEJ and can also be accessed through Project Muse and other online academic databases.
By Joseph Singh and Bilal Y. Saab – Russia’s decision to furnish Syria with its advanced S-300 missile defense system has sparked a wave of commentary on how the transfer will affect the Syrian government’s military posture and staying power. Israel seems to be doing everything it can to convince Moscow not to go through with the promised delivery. But Russian leaders seem adamant, describing the goal of the transfer unambiguously: to deter foreign intervention, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments illustrated on June 20.
Many analysts seem to have bought Russia’s logic, with recent assessments highlighting the “game-changing” nature of the strategic weapons’ transfer. Some contended that S-300 batteries would “alter the balance of power” in the region and make intervention “extremely difficult.” Others noted that the system’s ability to hit targets in Israel and in other countries allied to the United States in the region increases the likelihood that “regional war” might erupt.
Despite these prognostications, there are four reasons why the potential transfer of the S-300 is unlikely to significantly challenge U.S. capabilities to decisively intervene by air in Syria. Furthermore, the argument that the system’s deployment by itself automatically contributes to greater regional instability, when weighed against evidence of the possession by other Middle Eastern countries of similar weapons systems and more destabilizing weapons of mass destruction, holds no water whatsoever.
First, although the United States has not faced the S-300 in combat, a host of its allies — including Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovakia — currently use variants of the S-300 system. Through its alliances, the United States has enjoyed access to these systems and has gathered data, which could facilitate the development of countermeasures. As recently as 2012, NATO carried out a training exercise that tested the ability of various fighter aircraft to carry out missile hunting operations against Slovakia’s S-300 PMU, one of the more recent variants of the S-300 system.
Other U.S. allies have engaged in their own intelligence-gathering efforts on the S-300 to ascertain system vulnerabilities and develop countermeasures, the results of which they most likely shared with their U.S. counterparts. In 2008, Israel conducted joint exercises with Greece to gather intelligence on its more modern S-300PMU-1 system, the second-most recent S-300 iteration. According to award-winning investigative author Edwin Black, the exercise showed that “a 1400 km distance [about 870 miles] could be negotiated with Israeli aircraft remaining aloft and effective.” In turn, the Israeli Air Force (IAF), along with Israeli defense companies, began developing electronic countermeasures and decoys to hedge against the system’s capabilities. Even today, Israeli defense officials acknowledge that while the S-300 would pose problems it would not be the game-changer that some analysts have described. IAF Colonel Zvika Haimovich recently told Reuters, “Though it would impinge on our operations, we are capable of overcoming it.”
Second, a system with the technical complexity of the S-300 would prove exceedingly difficult for the Syrian military to operate. Personnel would require months of training to operate and maintain the S-300 — by some estimates, almost a year — before they could reliably deploy it. By then, sustaining a robust air defense could very well be the last concern of a regime fighting to keep control on the ground. Training personnel and developing facilities to operate and potentially repair the S-300s would expend precious troops and resources and still leave the systems vulnerable to ground attack by rebel forces, as much of the rest of Syria’s air defenses have been for the past two years. Furthermore, to maximize the S-300’s capabilities, the Syrian military would need to integrate the system into its overall air defense network so that each of its missile batteries engage the most appropriate targets. According to IHS Jane’s, doing this would require additional command and control hardware — such as the Baikal-1– which would entail further time for training and deployment of the S-300. Thus, the likelihood and payoff of a quick S-300 deployment seem small.
Third, recent analyses have inflated the vulnerability of aircraft to S-300 systems. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, for example, declared that the S-300 could target aircraft about 185 miles away, thus rendering vulnerable aircraft in Israeli airspace. Others, like Anthony Cordesman, have posited more reasonably that the maximum range is closer to about 95 miles. But what many analysts seem to have missed is that the S-300 does not detect all aircraft uniformly. The range at which the system would detect U.S.-Israeli aircraft is not only a function of the S-300’s capabilities, but the stealth profile and altitude of the aircraft being flown. Highly stealthy aircraft, like the U.S. F-22A, could relatively safely penetrate much further into Syrian airspace than other fighter jets like the F-16. And the S-300 would detect these aircraft at even smaller ranges if they are flown at low altitudes. While the S-300 can be outfitted with low-altitude radars, deployment of this component in an S-300 battery greatly limits the system’s mobility. Thus, any battery that uses the component becomes more vulnerable to strikes.
What’s more, the increased ranges of the S-300 are somewhat offset by stand-off missiles like the U.S. Air Force’s JASSM-ER missile, a stealthy, highly-accurate cruise missile which pilots can launch 575 miles from a target. The JASSM-ER flies at very low altitudes, enabling it to evade advanced systems like the S-300 until within several miles of the radar. Stand-off strike missiles like the JASSM-ER, especially when launched in large numbers, could overcome the defensive advantages provided by the S-300.
Fourth, despite the range of the S-300, the Assad regime is unlikely to unilaterally shoot down U.S. aircraft outside of Syrian airspace. While the regime was accused of doing precisely this to a Turkish warplane in June 2012, it also saw the grave risks of such provocations. The Turkish government strongly considered a military response, forcing Assad to confess that he regretted the decision to shoot down the aircraft. As the incident illustrated, any future provocations would provide more impetus for an intervention, which the regime is desperately trying to prevent. Indeed, threats of retaliation notwithstanding, Syria failed to respond to three covert air attacks on weapons shipments by Israel this year. If the Assad regime were to sanction the use of the S-300, it would be in the context of a clear decision by the United States and the West to intervene militarily in Syria (although such a decision may not be made public to increase the intervention’s chances of success). Under these circumstances, as previously mentioned, U.S. forces would be capable of neutralizing the S-300 threat.
So if the S-300 is unlikely to deter military intervention in Syria, then why is Russia expending political capital on this transfer? As the world’s second-largest arms exporter, foreign military sales contribute over $14 billion to Russia’s economy. Global focus on the Syrian conflict provides a useful opportunity to showcase one of Russia’s most advanced and widely exported military products, no less in a region home to the world’s largest arms importers. In addition, Russian leaders may be using the sale as part of a broader strategy to reassert itself in the Middle East. U.S. policymakers shouldn’t find this surprising, as Russia pursued similar objectives when it declared its intention to transfer the S-300 to Iran. According to Reuters, leaked diplomatic cables revealed that Russian officials had no intention of going through with the transfer. Instead, in 2010, Russia backed out of the agreement in exchange for several Israeli surveillance drones and guarantees from Israel to withhold arms from Georgia.
One caveat, however, is in order. If Russia does go ahead with its S-300 sale to Assad, it may also choose to send Russian personnel to man and train Syrian forces to use the system in the early months following the transfer. Under these circumstances, a decision to strike the S-300 batteries could be greatly complicated by the risk of killing Russian personnel. The military feasibility of counter-air operations in Syria still would not change, but the broader strategic costs certainly would. The death of Russian soldiers on Syrian territory by Western militaries would not be taken lightly by Moscow and could very well cause an international diplomacy crisis.
To be sure, acquisition of the S-300 would represent a drastic upgrade for a dense but aging Syrian air defense system. Robert Hewson accurately, if inadvertently, describes the shortcomings of recent analyses of the S-300 threat when he acknowledges, “If your plan is to waltz into Syrian airspace and start bombing things this is a big wrinkle.” And Hewson is right to assert that this would limit the ability of aircraft to “roam around Syrian airspace with impunity.” But this is an unreasonable standard by which to assess the feasibility of future contingencies in Syria. Certainly acquisition of the S-300 would necessitate some retooling of current plans for military action. But it would not prohibit and is unlikely to make significantly more costly any future air campaign in the area.
That Russia’s potential supply of advanced missile defenses to Syria is no panacea to Assad should not automatically lead to the endorsement of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone, or any of the other direct military intervention options being advocated elsewhere. Many U.S. analysts have made sensible arguments about the risks that would entail any direct military intervention in Syria. But the claim that the S-300 would prohibit or make very costly any future air campaigns in Syria simply doesn’t pass the sniff test. Indeed, such arguments can generate the impression of a closing window of opportunity and thus bolster the case for speedy military action. Other political and security dynamics on the ground may evolve in ways that make the case for intervention more or less appealing, but the country’s current or future air defenses are unlikely to be one of them.