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Airliner carrying 172 passengers nearly shot down over Syria, Russia says

A passenger plane carrying 172 passengers from Tehran to Damascus, Syria, made an emergency landing at a Russian-controlled air base in Syria on Feb. 6. (Video: Reuters)
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MOSCOW — An Airbus A320 jet carrying 172 passengers was nearly shot down on its approach to the Syrian capital, Damascus, shortly after 2 a.m. Thursday after Syria fired antiaircraft missiles in response to an attack, according to a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Russian news agencies reported Friday.

Russia accused the Israeli air force of using the passenger plane as a shield from Syrian air defenses, mirroring an incident in 2018 in which Syrian forces accidentally shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane, killing 15 Russian service members.

Thursday’s incident underlined the continued danger that Israel’s regular airstrikes in Syria, targeting what Israeli officials claim are Iranian assets, could spiral into a major international confrontation.

The plane was diverted to Russia’s nearby Hmeimim air base and landed safely, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

He did not name the airliner that was flying from Tehran to Damascus, but information from flight tracker Flightradar24 indicated it was likely a Syrian Cham Wings aircraft.

On Thursday, Israeli warplanes launched airstrikes at targets in southern Syria, according to Syrian state media. Konashenkov said the incident followed airstrikes by four Israeli F-16 fighter jets.

Israeli officials refused to comment on either the Russian allegation or the reported airstrike. Israeli officials routinely refuse to confirm or deny specific attacks in Syria, but senior Israeli officials have acknowledged carrying out hundreds of strikes in recent years as part of an effort to prevent Iran from establishing a military foothold in Syria.

The incident comes a month after Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew.

The Ukrainian jet was hit by an air defense battery of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the tense hours after Iran carried out retaliatory missile strikes against U.S. positions in Iraq after the United States killed a senior Iranian commander, Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad.

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According to Konashenkov, Israeli fighter jets fired eight missiles at targets near Damascus early Thursday, and Syrian forces fired antiaircraft missile defense systems.

“It was purely thanks to the prompt actions of air traffic controllers at Damascus airport and the effective operation of the automated air traffic control system that the Airbus 320 passenger plane was promptly rerouted from the Syrian air defense area of engagement and safely landed at the nearest reserve airfield — the Russian air base Hmeimim,” he said.

Konashenkov said the use of civilian aircraft as shields to deter Syrian forces from responding to attacks was “becoming a signature feature of the Israeli air force.” He added: “Unfortunately, such operations of Israeli strategists do not care in the slightest about the lives of hundreds of absolutely innocent civilians.”

In September 2018, Russia blamed Israel when Syrian forces shot down a Russian military plane while they were responding to an Israeli strike. Israel said Syria bore full responsibility for the incident.

The 2018 incident caused a spike in Russian-Israeli tensions over Syria and prompted Russia to deploy its own S-300 surface-to-air missiles in Syria to bolster its defenses.

However, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir Putin to express his sorrow over the incident, Putin described it as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

Konashenkov said the passenger flight should have been clearly visible to Israeli radar.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, said airstrikes Thursday hit the positions of Iranian-backed militias, killing 23 people, including Syrian and Iranian fighters.

In recent weeks, Syrian forces backed by Russian airstrikes and fighters supported by Iran have mounted attacks in the northwest of the country in a bid to crush the last stronghold of opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Sly reported from Beirut.

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