Israeli missiles kill two and halt flights at Damascus airport, says Syria

Salvo from direction of Sea of Galilee under Israeli control hit airport in early hours of Monday, said Syrian military

A plane at Syria's Aleppo airport, after flights were diverted from Damascus International Airport following an air strike last June. AFP
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An Israeli missile strike on Damascus International Airport in the early hours of Monday killed two soldiers and led to services being suspended overnight, the Syrian military said.

A salvo of missiles struck the airport, to the south-east of the capital, at 2am, the Syrian Army told state media.

While the Syrian government said two Syrian soldiers were killed and two others wounded the Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a wide network of sources on the ground in Syria, said "four fighters including two Syrian soldiers were killed".

The barrage, which came from the direction of Lake Tiberias ― also known as the Sea of Galilee ― under Israeli control, killed two military personnel and caused damage, leading to airport operations being halted, the army said.

About seven hours later, the Syrian Ministry of Transport said normal services at the airport had resumed, after damage “caused by the attack was repaired”.

But according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the damage was only partially repaired.

It said the runway used for civilian flights had been fixed, but a runway for cargo transport used by Iran-backed militia groups was still out of service at noon on Monday.

Syrian state TV reported that private Syrian airline Cham Wings had resumed services, while flight-tracking website Flightradar24 showed a flight from the central Iraqi city of Najaf by private Iraqi airline Fly Baghdad about to land at around 9am.

This is the second time in less than seven months that the Damascus airport, where Iranian-backed armed groups and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters are present, has been hit by Israel.

Monday's strike comes days after the head of the Israeli military's Operations Directorate, Maj Gen Oded Basiuk, presented the army's operational outlook for 2023.

“We see that our course of action in Syria is an example of how continuous and persistent military action leads to shaping and influencing the entire region,” the Israel Defence Forces quoted Gen Basiuk as saying.

“We will not accept Hezbollah 2.0 in Syria.”

Two regional intelligence sources told Reuters that Monday's strikes hit an outpost near the airport of Iran's Quds Force and militias it backs.

The Quds Force, part of Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is responsible for intelligence and military operations outside Iran. Its presence has spread in Syria during the civil war that began in 2011.

The strikes came almost exactly three years after the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in a US air strike at Baghdad International Airport.

Mr Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the deputy leader of Iraq's Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces, in a strike on January 3, 2020, sending US-Iran tension rocketing and prompting a flurry of militia attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting US troops.

The Israeli army did not immediately comment on Monday's attack and rarely speaks on individual strikes in Syria, although it has admitted to taking aim at hundreds of Iran-linked assets in the country.

Last month, army chief Lt Gen Aviv Kochavi admitted Israel hit a convoy carrying Iranian weapons from Iraq to Syria in November. It had passed through a border crossing controlled by Iran-backed militias operating in both countries.

Wael Alwan, director of information at Jusoor, a Syrian research centre in Istanbul, said the attack — which came a few days after the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel — signals a continuation of a policy of attacking Iranian-linked targets in Syria.

“It is a message that the internal political situation has stabilised in Israel and that the new government will deal similarly with Iranian arms transfers, military infrastructure and weapons development in Syria,” Mr Alwan told The National.

However, Israel appears set to continue a policy of avoiding an all-out attack on Iran’s military presence in Syria, Mr Alwan said.

He said pro-Iranian forces continued to control land routes — linking Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — that are key to maintaining Tehran’s regional military might.

“These routes are exposed also to the Americans,” he said. “Iran also controls Latakia port and has sea lines that strengthen its presence in Syria. But there is a balance in Syria between US, Israeli and Russian interests. Israel only strikes when it believes that Iran has stepped out of bounds.”

This aerial picture shows damaged runways at Damascus International Airport in June 2022. AFP

Damascus airport and nearby areas are known to host several air defence units and Iran-linked systems.

Iran-linked groups have a particularly strong presence around Damascus and its suburbs, where western intelligence says they have underground bases.

Israel has repeatedly hit Damascus airport and others across the country in an attempt to disrupt Tehran's increasing use of aerial supply lines to deliver arms to allies in Syria and Lebanon, including Hezbollah.

Syria halted flights to and from the airport in June for about two weeks after Israeli strikes caused extensive damage to infrastructure, including a runway and a terminal.

Aleppo airport was also hit in September and was forced to suspend operations for several days.

The Syrian government has never publicly acknowledged that Iranian forces operate on its behalf in Syria's civil war, claiming Iran has only military advisers in the country.

Updated: January 03, 2023, 4:24 AM