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Syria says Damascus airport operations suspended after Israeli strikes

A front loader at work at Damascus International Airport on June 12, after airstrikes there two days earlier that Syria attributes to Israel. (SANA/Reuters)
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BEIRUT — Syria’s main airport has been out of service since Friday when airstrikes, which the government attributed to Israel, heavily damaged infrastructure including runways and a hall in the airport’s terminal.

Syria regularly reports airstrikes by Israel — its southern neighbor and sworn enemy — targeting military installations, arms depots and other locations of Iran-aligned groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as well as its own troops. Israel rarely acknowledges the strikes.

The attack marked the first time the airport had been shut down because of damage from such strikes. The Transport Ministry said the “brutish” attack led to a halt of all flights until further notice. Syrian Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, said it would reimburse travelers or postpone canceled trips. Cham Wings, Syria’s first private national carrier, said it rerouted all its flights to the Aleppo airport and is providing all travelers with free transportation between Damascus and Aleppo — a bus trip of many hours.

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The Damascus airport, the country’s main international hub, had been largely spared in past strikes. Positions had been struck near and around the facility before, most notably in 2018 when the Israeli military said it responded to rocket fire by hitting dozens of Iran-linked military targets in Syria, including munition storage warehouses at the airport.

Friday’s attack was condemned by the United Nations, which decried striking a hub of civilian activity and warned of the humanitarian repercussions the airport’s closure will have on over 2 million people.

“Targeting civilian objects and infrastructure runs contrary to international and humanitarian law,” Imran Riza, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said in a statement. “Humanitarian air services must resume without delay so that emergency assistance can continue to reach those in need.”

The Transport Ministry did not initially blame Israel for the strikes, instead saying that flights had been suspended “due to some technical equipment going out of service.” Later that day, though, the ministry said an Israeli attack had targeted airport infrastructure, damaging airstrips, navigational lights and a hall inside the airport.

The full extent of the damage was not immediately clear. The government-run news agency SANA later reported that one citizen was injured and that the strikes hit two runways, including the main one, and an “equipment room.”

A local TV channel aired footage of Prime Minister Hussein Arnous walking around the airport amid small piles of rubble and a building facade that had been torn open, with concrete spilled onto the ground. Heavy machinery worked on clearing a large crater in one of the runways.

Last month, Avichay Adraee, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, said Iran was sending strategic weapons to Hezbollah aboard civilian flights from Iran to Damascus, “which exposes civilians to grave danger.”

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Russia and Iran, staunch allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, condemned the attack, but a Hezbollah-aligned newspaper in Lebanon that often acts as a mouthpiece for the group offered a glimpse into heightened tensions between the Russians and the Syrians and Iranians.

Al-Akhbar newspaper reported Monday that Syrian military sources had described “sharp” disputes in past weeks between the two camps over Israel’s attacks on Syria and the lack of a fitting Russian response — even before the most recent strike.

According to the report, when asked by the Syrian-Iranian side to put an end to Israeli attacks on infrastructure per a previous agreement, Russian commanders said they were not obliged to clash with Israel to protect Iranian interests.

Nader Durgham in Beirut and Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.