BEIRUT — Israel has marked a major escalation in its long campaign of airstrikes in Syria, carrying out an attack last week that shuttered the country’s main civilian airport in Damascus as Israel steps up efforts to stop Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah.
Commercial flights were still halted at Damascus International Airport five days after Friday’s predawn airstrikes slammed into its runways, leaving multiple craters and damaging the air traffic control tower and other buildings.
The strikes have further heightened tensions in the confrontation between Israel on the one hand and Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah on the other. Iran has accused Israel of murdering several high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards, while Hezbollah has threatened to hit a gas platform Israel is setting up in the Mediterranean Sea region which Lebanon also claims as its waters.
The escalation comes as Russia, the main ally of Iran and Syria, is concerned about its war in Ukraine. Russia has naval and air bases in Syria and troops deployed there, supporting Damascus in Syria’s long-running civil war.
With these strikes, Israel sends the message that it “will not let Iran fill the vacuum (left by) Russia in Syria while it is busy with Ukraine”, said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist and editor. diplomatic chief for Syrian affairs at the London newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
For years, Israel has carried out airstrikes in Syria, saying it is determined to prevent Iranian entrenchment near its northern border and the smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah, which is financed and armed by Tehran. The strikes largely hit bases of militias allied with Iran, including Hezbollah, as well as convoys supposed to transport weapons to Hezbollah.
Friday’s strikes were the most widespread against a civilian target and, by shutting down the airport, had the widest impact. As in the past, Israel did not claim responsibility for the strikes.
The airport had remained operational even during the worst days of Syria’s 11-year civil war. It has both a civilian section and a military section and satellite photos have shown the tracks on both sides with at least three craters each.
In addition to runways, the strikes hit or damaged airport concourses, a radar tower and a shipment of weapons that were on the civilian side of the airport, said Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Rights. of the British-based man who monitors the conflict in Syria. Military positions south of Damascus were also hit.
Despite the escalation, Syria and Hezbollah remained relatively silent on the attack. Syrian state media said the Israeli strikes injured one person and caused “significant” damage to infrastructure and rendered the main civilian runway unusable until further notice. Flights were redirected to Aleppo airport while repairs were underway.
Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous visited the airport on Sunday to inspect the repairs. Photos released by SANA showed a bulldozer working on what appeared to be the runway while another showed damage to the interior of one of the airport’s rooms with blown glass, chairs unhinged from their places and electric cables hanging from the ceiling.
Israeli media reported that the purpose of the latest attack was to prevent the flow of equipment used in precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah.
Military affairs analyst Yossi Yehoshua wrote in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth that the Iranians tried to step up air operations, first using cargo planes and hiding weapons in hangars at the international airport. damask. He claimed that Iran and Hezbollah were now using civilian flights to Damascus and Beirut to smuggle advanced military equipment to Hezbollah.
“The hardware consists of relatively small pieces that appear quite innocuous” and are easy to hide inside checked baggage on a civilian flight, Yehoshua wrote.
Amos Harel, senior military correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, wrote that Iran has been looking for ways around Israeli disruptions and that recently some of the best systems have been smuggled in carry-on luggage on commercial flights.
He added that the action suggests Israel may feel it can take full-scale military action now, as international attention is focused on Ukraine.
Past Israeli strikes have largely passed without Syrian retaliation. Israeli airstrikes in Syria are usually coordinated with Moscow through a “deconfliction mechanism” to avoid a direct confrontation with Russian forces in Syria.
In a rare public rebuke, the Russian Foreign Ministry called Friday’s airstrikes “provocative” and a “violation of fundamental norms of international law”.
A Lebanese journalist who covers Arab-Israeli affairs, Sateh Noureddine, wrote that Israel’s decision to destroy Damascus airport signals “a plan to impose a full air blockade on Iran while also hitting Hezbollah. , depriving it of a vital air link to its sole military supply centre.”
The strikes could be a first step towards a possible war between Israel and Hezbollah, warned Noureddine, writing on the Lebanese news site Al-Modon, of which he is editor-in-chief.
Hezbollah and Israel have had a series of clashes, including a full-scale war in 2006. Tensions between the two foes escalated over a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah having threatened last week to hit the Israeli gas platform being set up.
In February, Nasrallah said the group manufactured military drones in Lebanon and had the technology to turn thousands of missiles in their possession into precision-guided munitions.
A Lebanese military analyst who closely follows affairs in Syria and Lebanon said Syrian officials had been unusually “low-key” since the strike, given its significance.
“There is silence in Syria at all levels and the real scope of the strike is unknown,” he said, asking that his name not be made public in order to discuss the Syrian reaction.
“The timing of the strike and its connection to regional developments is puzzling,” he said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed reporting.