Ofek 1 images of Damascus International Airport.
(photo credit: MINISTRY OF DEFENSE SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
Around 9:30 p.m. on Sunday night, Syrian state media reported that air defense in Damascus was activated against a threat. Yet within an hour, the state media had deleted the report and locals said it was a false alarm. This comes amid jitters in Damascus about potential air strikes and the Russian decision to supply Syria with the advanced S-300 radar defense system. If Syrian air defense thinks its radars were jammed or spoofed and its system malfunctioned it will lead Damascus to investigate what happened amid continuing tensions in the region.
The alleged “air strike” that apparently did not take place would have been the first incident since Syria reported air strikes south of Damascus on November 30. In that incident, a strike allegedly targeted an Iranian-backed militia near Kiswah. Reports indicated that Syria did not use its S-300 system which may not be fully operational yet, to interdict the strike.
According to numerous online accounts that follow air traffic, the rumors of the air strike on Sunday
came after a mysterious Iranian cargo plane, which some labeled a 747, headed toward Syria at 5 p.m. It was one of several reports of air activity over Damascus in the afternoon. Reports initially claimed that “cargo” was struck at Damascus International Airport. The reports indicated that air defense had fired several missiles but no videos were produced of them. The Within Syria Blog reported “sources told me that the target of the airstrikes may be an Iranian cargo plane which reportedly landed earlier.” SANA, Syrian state media, claimed “our air defenses intercepted enemy aerial targets in the vicinity of Damascus International Airport.”
But something mysterious happened after the alleged strike. SANA, Syrian state media deleted their report of the airstrike. Subsequently sources said it was a false alarm and perhaps a kind of drill. Syrian media had initially claimed “interceptions of enemy targets.” Residents living near the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque close to the airport also reported that they heard two explosions. But did they? The Within Syria Blog updated its report at 10:45 p.m. claiming that “sources close to the state-media in Syria are confirming that Syrian air defense systems around Damascus airport came under Israeli stand-off jamming.”
The incident points to the fact that residents of Damascus, online accounts that follow the conflict in Syria and Syrian state media are quick to report details that may be inaccurate. Unlike in other incidents, there were no videos or audio of the alleged explosions. This adds credence to the theory that it was a false alarm or some other sort of alert. Because Damascus has been targeted by air strikes in the past, including the airport area, many are on edge, including radar crews, and may overreact. However this does not fully explain why state media would create a false report. Obviously something happened that caused them to do that. Their initial report even claimed “success” by the air defense. Was the air defense activated by mistake?
According to the social media user Babak Taghvee who is a defense analyst, the claims that air strikes came in the wake of an Iranian 747 landing were misleading. In fact an Iranian 707 had landed. It may have included officials or extra crew. He claimed that “stand-off jamming by Israel air force resulted in disruption of fire control radars of Syria Arab Air Defense Force an hour ago. Subsequently three surface to air missiles were launched at imaginary targets.”
The incident will lead to speculation about exactly what happened in Damascus on December 9. Was this a Syrian error, or was it a more complex incident? Social media experts, even those claiming to have “local sources” or “regime sources” may also err in their description of what happened. They may also put forward theories, such as claims that the S-300 system was being tested, to cover up for Syrian air defense errors or for a more serious incident. Syria’s Russian ally, which supplied the S-300, will be watching this closely.
If the radar malfunctioned or was “jammed,” Moscow will be keen to know that its system or those it trained to use it have made mistakes. Syria’s air defense used an S-200 to mistakenly down a Russian IL-20 in the skies above Latakia in September, during an Israeli air strike, which led Russia to send the S-300 to Damascus. Now there will be questions about what Syrian air defense did on Sunday night. Theories about the defense radars, of which Syria has a plethora of antiquated and more modern systems, being "jammed" or spoofed will make Syrian air defense concerned about using their air defense and whether it is functioning properly.
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