Shuttering Damascus airport, Israel ramps up its efforts to foil Iran arms transfers

Syria’s Damascus International Airport has been completely shuttered, possibly for quite some time, after an unusual series of strikes in recent weeks which have been attributed to Israel. The most recent attack, on Friday, disabled both runways and damaged infrastructure used for planes to navigate, as well as an old arrivals hall.

Over the years, Israel has repeatedly charged Iran with smuggling weapons and missile-improving systems from Tehran to its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah using flights via Syria. More recently, the Israel Defense Forces’ Arabic-language spokesperson alleged that the son-in-law of Iran’s assassinated Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani was behind such operations on civilian flights heading to Damascus.

Generally, relatively large weapons are thought to be smuggled via Syria on Iranian cargo airlines, which frequently land at Damascus International and the Tiyas, or T-4, airbase, outside of the central Syrian city of Palmyra. The weaponry is then believed to be stored in warehouses in the area before being trucked to Lebanon.

In response, Israel has in the past allegedly struck the runway at T-4. More recently, in missile strikes in April and May, a section of Damascus International near a military base was damaged in a way that shortened the length of a runway to prevent large planes from landing.

But last month, Avichay Adraee, the IDF’s Arabic-language spokesperson, accused Iran and Hezbollah of “endangering civilians” by smuggling “advanced weaponry” via civilian flights to Damascus. The weaponry Adraee was referring to was thought to be GPS components that are installed on locally produced missiles in Lebanon.

The IDF has previously published details of underground sites in Lebanon that it alleges were used to convert simple rockets into guided missiles, using Iranian-made parts. The devices are relatively small and can apparently be smuggled via Syria in the baggage compartment of regular civilian flights from Tehran, such as in the case of Soleimani’s son-in-law.

Damage is seen at Syria’s Damascus International Airport, after an airstrike attributed to Israel, June 12, 2022. (SANA)

Israel realized its attacks until Friday’s strike had not prevented the transfer of Iranian weapon parts to Lebanon, according to military sources cited by Channel 12 news this weekend.

The report said Israel was thwarting some 70 percent of smugglings, and had decided to further ramp up its action, which included crippling the Syrian capital’s airport.

This photo released by ImageSat International on June 10, 2022, shows Syria’s Damascus International Airport after an airstrike attributed to Israel. (ImageSat International)

The shuttering of the Damascus airport in the most recent strike attributed to Israel, in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, will prevent all cargo and civilian flights from Tehran — and elsewhere — from arriving for the time being. Most flights are now being redirected to Aleppo’s airport, and it remains to be seen if Iran will attempt to smuggle weapons there too, until the Damascus airport is repaired.

Syria’s Transportation Ministry initially said the airport would remain closed for two days after “some technical equipment stopped functioning at the airport.” In a later statement, it said the airport would be closed for a longer period, citing “sizeable damage” to the runways and the second terminal building. On Sunday, the state-run SANA broadcaster published images of repair works.

Repair works are seen at Syria’s Damascus International Airport, after an airstrike attributed to Israel, June 12, 2022. (SANA)

Israel has made no official comment on the incident, in line with its years-long policy.

But in an apparent reference, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi said during a Sunday conference that in a potential war, “any national infrastructure that supports terror is a target for attack.”

Smoke rises in the countryside of Damascus, Syria, on October 30, 2021, following what Syrian state media said was an Israeli strike. (AP Photo/Omar Sanadiki)

Meanwhile, Russia lashed out at Israel on Friday, saying it condemned the “vicious practice” of Israeli strikes on civilian infrastructure, which it said were “provocative” and “in violation of the basic norms of international law.”

But even before that unusually bitter condemnation, Israel has found itself at odds with Russia as it has increasingly supported Ukraine while seeking to maintain freedom of movement in Syria’s skies, which are largely controlled by Russia.

Still, Israeli officials have vowed to continue the campaign to prevent Hezbollah and other groups on Israel’s northern frontier from arming themselves with advanced and accurate weapons, regardless of Russian disapproval or apparent Iranian attempts to circumvent Israel’s actions. The most recent strike appears to prove exactly that.

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