A Syrian passenger plane was forced to make an emergency landing at a Russian-controlled airbase in Syria during Israeli airstrikes on Damascus earlier this week, the Russian defence ministry said.
An Airbus A-320 carrying 172 passengers from Tehran was diverted from Damascus airport in the early hours of Thursday to nearby Khmeimim airbase after Syrian air defences nearly hit it during an attempt to repulse the alleged Israeli attack, according to Russian state news agency RIA.
Initial reports in Russian media indicated the plane was Russian, but Flight Radar data showed the plane was a Syrian-operated Cham Wings flight.
The incident in Syria’s skies took place a month after a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board, after it was shot at in error by Iranian forces.
At 2am on Thursday four Israeli F-16 fighter jets struck eight air-to-ground missiles in the suburbs of Damascus without entering Syrian airspace, a military spokesperson told RIA. Russia’s defence ministry denounced what it said was Israel’s “common practice” of using civilian aircraft as a “shield”, Russia Today reported.
Syria has to date struggled to repel Israeli airstrikes. In 2018, Bashar al-Assad’s forces accidentally shot down a reconnaissance plane belonging to its Russian allies while responding to an Israeli attack with anti-aircraft missiles, killing 15 crew members. Moscow held the Israeli air force accountable for the incident for allegedly using the Russian plane as cover.
Spokespeople for the Israeli military and foreign ministry declined to comment.
Israel does not normally comment on its military activity in Syria. Since the civil war broke out in 2011 it has carried out hundreds of airstrikes targeting Assad’s Iranian and Hezbollah allies, whose presence in Syria is regarded as an existential threat by Israel. Strikes normally target supply routes and infrastructure such as weapons depots.
The Israel Defence Forces recently confirmed it has also begun operations in Iraq to stop Iran and its proxies from entrenching inside the country.
Thursday’s pre-dawn strikes in Syria were the most intense in months, targeting al-Kiswah, Marj al-Sultan and the Baghdad Bridge in the vicinity of Damascus and South Izra in the Daraa countryside.
The attack killed at least 23 Syrian and allied Iranian fighters, according to war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Unconfirmed reports said the senior Syrian Maj Gen Ismail Badran, chief commander of Mezzeh airbase, was killed. Syrian state media reported eight injuries and no deaths.
In July last year Damascus accused Israel of “heinous aggression” after strikes south of Damascus and in Homs province led to the deaths of at least six civilians.
Syria’s foreign ministry filed a complaint to the United Nations security council over the attack, demanding accountability, although the Observatory said the deaths could have occurred in the aftermath of the attack by the remnants of missile parts or the Syrian counter-attack itself.