Four Casualties After Israel Strikes Syria’s Main Airport: Why Damascus’ Air Defences Struggle to Cope

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The Israeli Air Force launched an air strike on Syria’s primary airport in the early hours of January 2, forcing a suspension of operations at Damascus International Airport and causing two deaths and a further two injuries. The attacks took place at around 2:00 am, with missiles launched from the direction of the Sea of Galilee approximately 100km southwest of Damascus, in line with prior Israeli strikes which have consistently relied on using standoff weapons launched outside Syrian airspace. Israeli aircraft venturing too close to Syrian air defence sites have taken losses in the past, including to antiquated Cold War era systems such as the S-200, although the lack of modern longer ranged air defence assets has prevented Syria from reliably targeting aircraft attack from further away. Syria’s short range air defences have nevertheless been modernised with Russian support, with newly delivered BuK-M2 and Pantsir systems able to intercept missiles launched from the air during prior Israeli attacks.

Syrian attempts to purchase the more modern S-300 air defence system in the 2010s, or advanced MiG-31 interceptors in the 2000s, both failed due to Western and Israeli pressure on Russia which have resulted in a continued reliance on much older Soviet supplied assets for longer ranged air defence duties. Although Russia previously delivered a very limited number of S-300 systems to Syria in late 2018 as aid, these remained under the control of Russian personnel and were reportedly withdrawn in 2022. Israeli attacks on Syrian airports, combined with continued Turkish support for jihadists in the country’s northeast and illegal U.S. and NATO appropriations of Syrian oil from the country’s northwest, have continued to strain the country’s defences and its finances across multiple fronts. The result has been a slowing of recovery from a decade long jihadist insurgency which brought the majority of the country under the rule Islamic State and Al Qaeda linked terror groups in the 2010s. Although having since reclaimed the large majority of the country, the Syrian government has continued to endure sporadic attacks both from the Israeli Air Force and from the Turkish Military and the jihadists it has supported. Russia has maintained a considerable supporting presence in Syria despite the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian War, and although refraining from intervening against Israeli attacks it has continue to support counterinsurgency efforts against Turkish-backed militants.

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