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Report: Israeli strikes tighten screws on Iran weapon transfers at Syrian airports

Diplomats, intel officials tell Reuters Iran is increasingly using civilian flights to transport arms, leading to increase in strategic attacks attributed to Israel

This satellite image taken September 1, 2022, shows damage caused in an airstrike attribued to Israel at the Aleppo International Airport in northern Syria. (Planet Labs PBC via Aurora Intel)
This satellite image taken September 1, 2022, shows damage caused in an airstrike attribued to Israel at the Aleppo International Airport in northern Syria. (Planet Labs PBC via Aurora Intel)

Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria have increasingly targeted airports to counter Tehran’s growing use of commercial flights to bring military supplies into the country, Reuters reported Friday, citing intelligence and diplomatic sources.

A Western intelligence source and a Syrian military defector told the news agency that Tehran has taken to flying small weapons and other military supplies on regular civilian flights. Supplies transferred include precision-guided missiles, night vision equipment and UAVs, all of which are small enough to load onto civilian planes, they said.

Iran has increasingly relied on flights as its previous ground routes via Iraq have become unreliable amid local turf wars and internal conflicts, the report said.

Israel views Iran’s expansion throughout Syria as a continued threat to its national security, and has conducted strikes across a broad range of targets in an effort to curb Iran’s forces in the region.

A regional diplomatic source told Reuters that Israeli intelligence had noticed Iran’s growing use of civilian airports to bring in military equipment and that recent airstrikes targeting airports appeared to signal a shift in Israeli strategy in the region.

“They started to hit infrastructure used by the Iranians for ammunition supplies to Lebanon,” the source told Reuters. “In the past, it was only the supplies but not the airport. Now, they hit the runway.”

The Reuters report said recent strikes on airports in Aleppo and Damascus also appeared to have been conducted to prevent the arrival of specific planes carrying weaponry.

This satellite photo released by Planet Labs PBC shows the damage after an Israeli strike targeted the Aleppo International Airport, September 1, 2022. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

While Israel has refused to comment on specific airstrikes, military officials have acknowledged conducting them throughout Syria’s eleven-year-long civil war.

Earlier this year, airstrikes attributed to Israel caused major damage to the Damascus International Airport, halting all air traffic for two weeks. The Syrian defector told Reuters that as a result, Iran diverted its shipments to the Aleppo airport, prompting Israel’s alleged strike there on Wednesday.

Nawar Shaaban, an analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, also told Reuters that the location of Israeli air strikes sheds light on the expansion of Iranian influence in Syria. While strikes previously targeted  Damascus and surrounding military zones, strikes in destinations farther away, such as Aleppo and the Syrian coast, show which regions Israel assesses as potential threats.

“The dangerous thing is that when we look at these areas that are being hit, it tells us that Iran has spread out more,” Shaban said.

“Every time we see a strike hit a new area, the reaction is, ‘Woah, Israel hit there’. But what we should be saying is, ‘Woah, Iran is there,'” he added.

A fire is reportedly seen at Aleppo International Airport in northern Syria following an airstrike attributed to Israel, August 31, 2022. (Social media)

While the IDF spokesperson has declined to comment on specific events, in line with Israeli policy, it has acknowledged numerous attacks in the region.

A satellite image taken Thursday showed damage at Aleppo International Airport in northern Syria. The image, taken by Planet Labs PBC and provided by Aurora Intel, appeared to show a scorched area near the end of the runway.

The strike tore a hole through the runway, as well as ignited a grassfire at the airfield. Still, planes continued to land at the airport throughout Thursday.

According to Aurora Intel, a sanctioned Iranian cargo plane had landed at the Aleppo airport several hours before the strike. It was not clear if the plane, or cargo it was carrying, had been hit in the attack.

Also Thursday, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad issued a harsh warning to Israel over the airstrikes. He said Israel was “playing with fire” and risking a wider military conflict, according to Arabic media reports.

On Friday, an Arabic newspaper reported that Russia had demanded Iran and its militias withdraw from positions across Syria amid an apparent uptick in airstrikes attributed to Israel.

A-Sharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned daily published in London, cited Syrian officials as saying Russian officers called on their Iranian counterparts during a Wednesday meeting at the Hama Military Airport in central Syria to leave several sites in the country.

The report said the calls came as Russia was seeking to maintain stability in Syria, and to deprive Israel of targets to bomb in areas Russia sees as important. An airstrike attributed to Israel last month hit several Iranian sites close to Russia’s main naval base in Syria, at the port city of Tartus.

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