Syria denies attack on Damascus airport as local residents hear blasts
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Syria denies attack on Damascus airport as local residents hear blasts

Official state media retracts report on incoming strike; Syrian journalists say air defenses were falsely triggered, potentially by Israeli electronic warfare

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Flames rising after an attack in an area known to have numerous Syrian army military bases, in Kisweh, south of Damascus, released by Syria's official news agency on May 9, 2018. (SANA, via AP)
Illustrative: Flames rising after an attack in an area known to have numerous Syrian army military bases, in Kisweh, south of Damascus, released by Syria's official news agency on May 9, 2018. (SANA, via AP)

Syrian state media denied reports of an attack on Damascus international airport as residents of the area said they heard the sound of explosions on Sunday night.

Earlier, the official Syrian government mouthpiece SANA reported that the country’s air defenses had been triggered by incoming “hostile” missiles.

However, within hours, the outlet’s articles had been retracted and replaced with a quote from a military source who said there had been no attack on the airport.

Yet residents of southern Damascus reported hearing at least two large explosions. Syria-based journalists said the blasts appeared to have indeed been from the launch of the military’s air defenses, which some speculated was the result of an Israeli electronic warfare attack.

The Israeli military refused to comment on the matter.

The Syrian reports came amid peak tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah terrorist group, which is deeply involved in the Syrian civil war.

Last week, Israel launched Operation Northern Shield along the Lebanese border to find and destroy attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah into Israeli territory. So far, the Israeli military has said it has uncovered at least two tunnels that enter Israel from southern Lebanon.

The Israeli military drills into the soil south of the Lebanese border in an effort to locate and destroy Hezbollah attack tunnels that it says entered Israeli territory, on December 5, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Last month, Israel reportedly launched a series of airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, prompting the country’s military to launch a massive barrage of anti-aircraft missiles, including one that landed inside Israeli territory, causing neither injury nor damage.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, the Israeli bombardment hit two positions in the south of Damascus province, including an area believed to be an Iranian weapons depot near the capital.

Once a regular occurrence, reports of Israeli airstrikes in Syria have become increasingly rare in the past three months, after Syria accidentally shot down a Russian spy plane during an Israeli raid, which Moscow blamed on Israel.

Last month’s strike was the first time Syria’s air defenses had been called into action since they inadvertently shot down the Russian plane and the 15 people on board on September 17.

Despite the strained relationship with Russia, Israeli officials maintain that the IDF continues to operate in the country. However, many defense analysts suspect that Russia — with the advanced air defense systems it has in Syria — may be curbing Israel’s ability to rein its arch nemesis Iran’s military presence in the country.

In recent years, Israel has acknowledged conducting hundreds of airstrikes in Syria, which it says were aimed at both preventing Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria and blocking the transfer of advanced munitions to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel has designated these two issues as “red lines” that it will take military action to prevent.

However, this has slowed in the past two months following the downing of the Russian plane.

Moscow blamed Israel for the incident and supplied Damascus with the advanced S-300 air defense system — something it had previously refrained from doing following requests from Jerusalem.

Screen capture from video showing the delivery of Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. (YouTube)

The S-300 systems were delivered to Syria last month, but they are not yet believed to be in use, as the Syrian air defense teams still need to be trained to operate them.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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