Russia on Friday said its ally Syria nearly shot down a civilian plane carrying 172 passengers while trying to repel an Israeli airstrike near Damascus the day before.
Moscow accused the Israel Defense Forces of using the civilian plane as a shield during its attack early Thursday.
The Russian military said a civilian Airbus-320 with 172 passengers on board was attempting to land at Damascus Airport during the alleged Israeli strikes, but was instead forced to land at the Russian airbase in Khmeimim, the official Russian government outlet TASS reported.
Flight data from the approximate time of the attack indicated that the plane was operated by the Syrian Cham Wings airline. The plane was nearly hit by Syrian air defenses during the attack, according to Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.
“Only thanks to prompt actions of dispatchers at Damascus airport and effective work of the automated system of monitoring air traffic, the Airbus-320 was escorted from the danger zone and assisted in successfully landing at an aerodrome at the Russian air base Khmeimim,” he said, according to TASS.
Konashenkov denounced what he said was becoming a “typical practice” of Israel’s of using civilian aircraft as a “shield” against Syrian air defenses, apparently referring to a case in 2018, when the Syrian military shot down a Russian spy plane while responding to an Israeli strike over Syrian airspace.
Russia later declared that Israel was responsible for that incident, in which 15 crew members were killed, saying the Israeli Air Force jets used the Russian plane as cover.
In that case, the Israeli military flatly denied the allegation that IDF jets had used the spy plane as shield, and defense analysts also cast doubts on the feasibility of such a maneuver.
Nevertheless, the incident led to a major diplomatic spat between Moscow and Jerusalem.
Twenty-three Iranian and foreign fighters were killed in strikes against several targets near Damascus in the predawn hours of Thursday morning, which Syrian state media blamed on Israel, according to a Britain-based monitoring group.
Syrian state news agency SANA on Thursday claimed the country’s air defenses downed a number of missiles during the strikes. Defense analysts routinely dismiss such claims by the Syrian regime as empty boasts.
“Our air defenses confronted an Israeli attack” west of the capital, said state news agency SANA, adding that the attack was carried out from airspace in the Israeli Golan Heights.
State television broadcast images showing explosions in the sky as Syrian anti-aircraft missiles detonated in the air.
According to SANA, the Israeli strikes targeted the al-Kiswah district — an area outside of Damascus that Israel has acknowledged striking in the past due to its use as an Iranian base of operations — as well as Marj al-Sultan and Jisr Baghdad.
In total, at least three government and Iranian positions near Damascus and west of the capital were targeted, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which said a fire broke out in one of the areas.
IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said he was aware of the “foreign reports” about airstrikes in Syria but declined to comment on the matter in accordance with longstanding Israeli policy.
Israel has long maintained that it will not tolerate efforts by Iran — a major ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad — to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and would take steps to thwart such entrenchment. Israel accuses Iran of seeking to set up a military presence in Syria that could be used as a launchpad for attacks against the Jewish state. Jerusalem has also vowed to retaliate for any attacks on Israel from Syria.
Though Israeli officials generally refrain from taking responsibility for specific strikes in Syria, they have acknowledged conducting hundreds to thousands of raids in the country since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
These have overwhelmingly been against Iran and its proxies, notably the Lebanese Hezbollah group, but the IDF has also carried out strikes on Syrian air defenses when those batteries have fired at Israeli jets. In recent months, the IDF has also confirmed conducting operations in Iraq against Iranian entrenchment efforts there as well.
The reported strikes in the early hours of Thursday morning came just over a month after the killing of Iranian Quds Force head Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike earlier this month.
Soleimani was seen as the architect of Iran’s project to carve out a foothold in Syria, which Israel sees as a threat and has vowed to stymie.
An IDF Military Intelligence assessment handed to the government last month said the removal of Soleimani could give Israel an opportunity to curb or halt Iran entrenchment in Syria and elsewhere.
Shortly after this assessment was released, Damascus accused the Israeli Air Force of carrying out an attack on the T-4 military airport in central Syria near Homs. The base has long believed to be used by Iranian forces and allied Shiite militias and has been targeted by Israeli airstrikes in the past.
According to the SOHR, the strike on January 14 targeted a weapons storehouse, as well as a building that was under construction and two military vehicles on the T-4 air base, killing three pro-Iranian fighters.
Last November, four rockets were fired at northern Israel from Syria, all of which were shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system. In response, the Israeli army conducted a series of air strikes against Iranian forces and government military sites, killing several pro-Iranian fighters.
Judah Ari Gross and AFP contributed to this report.