Coalition airstrikes helped turn the tides of the Libyan revolution in favor of the rebels; why not do the same in Syria? Because the Syrian government may or may not have just taken possession of one of the most frightening anti-aircraft batteries ever devised, that's why.
The Russian-made S-300 long-range SAM (surface-to-air) system, known as the Grumble to NATO forces, has been produced by the government-owned Almaz Corporation since 1979. It consists of truck-mounted mobile launch platforms with a set of self-contained anti-ballistic missiles and is designed to intercept aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. It does this phenomenally well. The latest iteration of the S-300, the S-300PMU2 (Gargoyle) is capable of setting up in under five minutes, tracking up to 100 incoming projectiles, and engaging six targets simultaneously.
The Russian government introduced the Gargoyle in 1997 to compete against the American Patriot ABM system. It can launch a half dozen missiles simultaneously, regardless of the target's altitude, and have shown themselves more than capable against the F-16, F-15, F-18, and F-22—notching a kill ratio between .8 and .93 versus aircraft and 0.8 to 0.98 against Tomahawk missiles at a range of 70 kilometers. That is, there's at least an 80 percent chance you're going down if you find yourself in the S-300's sights. What's more, the battery is protected against standoff distance (very long range) guided weapons as electronic countermeasures.
So why does this matter? Because of the reputed sale of the system to Syria as seen in the manufacturer's 2011 annual report mentioning a $105 million Syrian missile contract which has since been pulled from public record. Both the Assad regime and Moscow remain tight-lipped on the matter.
“The deal is strictly between Moscow and Damascus—which is to say, it’s all in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Alexey Eremenko from the Russian news agency Novosti, “all attempts to ban arms sales to Syria via the UN Security Council have been blocked by Russia. Of course, there is behind-the-scenes haggling and arm-twisting, but that’s unofficial.”
“The missile batteries would give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime a powerful weapon against foreign air strikes” Eremenko told Defence Update, “one of the options being bounced around as a form of international intervention—and could fracture the fragile accord on Syria reached last week between Moscow and Washington, which hope to get the warring sides to negotiate.”
And if that burgeoning peace accord does break and the international community attempts a Libya-style aerial intervention, the S-300 would be quite able to target and eliminate targets outside of Syria as well. This could effectively create a no-fly zone for coalition aircraft. Israel is reportedly so concerned over the potential presence of these platforms in Syria that it purchased several F-35 Lightning II fighters to counter.
Things could really get out of hand in Syria really quickly. Hold on to your butts.