‘Israeli strike’ hits arms depot near Damascus airport
Syrian rebel sources say the airport is used by Iran to resupply Hizbullah weapons
Flames rising in the distance, which are believed to be coming from Damascus International Airport, viewed from the town of Douma. said. Photograph: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty
Israel struck an arms supply hub operated by the Lebanese group Hizbullah near Damascus airport on Thursday, targeting weapons sent from Iran via commercial and military cargo planes, Syrian rebel and regional intelligence sources said.
Video carried on Arab TV and shared on social media showed the pre-dawn air strikes caused a fire around the airport east of the Syrian capital, suggesting fuel sources or weapons containing explosives were hit.
Syrian state media said Israeli missiles hit a military position southwest of the airport, but did not mention arms or fuel. It said “Israeli aggression” had caused explosions and some material losses, but did not expand on the damage.
In a sign of the heightened tensions surrounding a conflict that has already caught up regional and international powers, Syria’s ally Russia criticised the Israeli strike and said Syrian sovereignty should be respected.
“The incident in Syria corresponds completely with Israel’s policy to act to prevent Iran‘s smuggling of advanced weapons via Syria to Hizbullah,“ he said.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu had “said that whenever we receive intelligence that indicates an intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hizbullah, we will act”, he added.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said: “We can‘t comment on such reports.”
Two senior rebel sources in the Damascus area, citing monitors in the eastern outskirts of the capital, said five strikes had hit an ammunition depot used by Iran-backed militias.
Lebanon’s al-Manar television, which is affiliated with Hizbullah, said early indications were that the strikes hit warehouses and fuel tanks. It said there no casualties.
President Bashar al-Assad is backed in Syria’s six-year-old civil war by Russia, Iran and regional Shia militias. These include Hizbullah, a close ally of Tehran and enemy of Israel, which describes the group as the biggest threat it faces on its borders. The two fought a month-long war in 2006.
Syrian military defectors familiar with the functioning of the airport during the war said on Thursday that it played a major role as a conduit for arms from Tehran.
Alongside military planes, a number of commercial cargo aircraft fly from Iran to resupply arms to Hizbullah and other groups, passing through Iraqi airspace, the defectors said.
As well as weapons, hundreds of Shia militia fighters from Iraq and Iran have been flown to Damascus international airport, they said.
Intelligence sources put their numbers at 10,000 to 20,000 and say they play a significant role in military campaigns launched by the Syrian army.
Israel has largely kept out the war in Syria, but officials have consistently referred to two red lines that have prompted a military response in the past – any supply of advanced weaponry to Hizbullah, and the establishment of “launch sites” for attacks on Israel from the Golan Heights region.
Speaking in Moscow on Wednesday, where he was attending a security conference, Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated that Israel “will not allow Iranian and Hizbullah forces to be amassed on the Golan Heights border”.
During his visit, Mr Lieberman held talks with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, as part of efforts by Israel to coordinate with Moscow on actions in Syria and avoid the risk of confrontation.
An Israeli defence ministry statement said Mr Lieberman had expressed concern to Russian ministers over “Iranian activity in Syria and the Iranian use of Syrian soil as a base for arms smuggling to Hizbullah in Lebanon”.
A Western diplomat said the air strikes sent a clear political message to Iran, effectively saying it could no longer use Iraqi and Syrian airspace to resupply proxies with impunity.
Speaking to Reuters in Washington on Wednesday, Mr Katz, the intelligence minister, said Israel was seeking an understanding with the Trump administration that Iran not be allowed to establish a permanent military foothold in Syria.
Israel has also said that Hizbullah has built up an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets, many of which would be capable of striking anywhere within Israeli territory. The last conflict between the two left 1,300 people dead and uprooted more than a million Lebanese and 300,000 to 500,000 Israelis.