Russian envoy: Israeli strikes in Syria ‘increase possibility of conflict’
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Russian envoy: Israeli strikes in Syria ‘increase possibility of conflict’

Alexander Yefimov, ambassador to Syria, calls raids targeting Iran and its allies ‘provocative and very dangerous,’ says strikes ‘threaten lives of innocent people’

Explosions are seen in the skies over Damascus as the Syrian military fires anti-aircraft weapons at incoming missiles during an attack attributed to Israel on February 6, 2020. (SANA)
Explosions are seen in the skies over Damascus as the Syrian military fires anti-aircraft weapons at incoming missiles during an attack attributed to Israel on February 6, 2020. (SANA)

Russian Ambassador to Syria Alexander Yefimov on Monday condemned Israel for its alleged strikes in Syria, the latest of which was reported to have killed more than 20 Syrian and Iranian military officials.

“The Israeli raids are, of course, provocative and very dangerous for the situation in Syria,” Yefimov said in an interview with Sputnik Arabic, according to an English translation by Syrian news site Al-Masdar. “The [Israeli] missiles are falling not only in the areas bordering Israel, but also reaching areas deep in Syria, in the eastern part of the country and even in residential areas in Damascus. It is regrettable that civilians become victims of these raids.”

Echoing an accusation voiced by Moscow’s Defense Ministry, Yefimov said: “A flagrant incident occurred during the Israeli attack on the night of February 6, when a plane carrying about 172 passengers came under Syrian air defense fire during the response. It is good that they were able to redirect it to the Hmeimim Airbase at the appropriate time.

“In addition to the clear violation of Syrian sovereignty and the real threat to the lives of innocent people, all of this increases the possibility of conflict over Syria and runs counter to efforts to achieve stability and a political settlement,” he added.

An Israeli F-35 fighter jet takes off during the “Blue Flag” multinational aerial exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 11, 2019. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Israel has not specifically admitted to carrying out the strikes on several targets near Damascus in the predawn hours of Thursday morning, which killed 23 fighters.

But Syrian state media blamed Israel, and over the weekend Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett seemingly confirmed the strike was Israeli, saying the Jewish state had carried out an attack in the past week and noting: “Foreign media reported this week that 23 Syrians and Iranians were killed there. Those are large numbers and we will do more and more.”

Israel and Russia have coordinated their military efforts in Syria in recent years, in order to avoid friction and accidental conflict. Israeli officials do not generally discuss the full extent of that coordination, but they stress that the Israeli military does not seek Russian permission before carrying out operations.

Moscow accused the Israel Defense Forces of using the civilian plane as a shield during its attack 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 Hmeimim.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the media in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

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 Hmeimim,” 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.

According to Syrian state news agency SANA, Thursday’s 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.

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.

An Israeli military position, right, is seen on the top of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, where the borders between Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet. April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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. Soleimani was seen as the architect of Iran’s project to carve out a foothold in Syria.

Judah Ari Gross and AFP contributed to this report.

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