Israel's doctrine: Make Syrian airports pay for hosting Iran - analysis

Two alleged Israeli airstrikes in a row on the Aleppo airport also illustrate that Syria cannot defend its airspace against the strikes.

 Smoke rises from shelling on the road to Aleppo international airport. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah)
Smoke rises from shelling on the road to Aleppo international airport.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah)

Aleppo International Airport was damaged in an airstrike on September 6 and satellite images from ImageSat International (ISI) show that the runway appears to be out of service.

The ISI report noted that according to the media, the “airport is used by Iran to transport weapons to Hezbollah.... ISI assessment: The attack was aimed to get the runway and the airport out of service.”

Syrian media blame Israel for airstrikes in Syria over the last month.

The incident at the airport follows another airstrike in the same area. On September 2 The Jerusalem Post reported that the runway at Aleppo’s International Airport has been repaired and likely returned to service, just days after it was targeted in an alleged Israeli airstrike, according to an assessment by ISI. Syria blamed Israel for that airstrike.

The VOR (radio navigation system) south of the runway, which helps aircraft stay on course as they land, was also damaged in the strike.

 A plane carrying Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian lands in Damascus International Airport, in Damascus, Syria March 23, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/FIRAS MAKDESI) A plane carrying Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian lands in Damascus International Airport, in Damascus, Syria March 23, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/FIRAS MAKDESI)

Back in June when Damascus International Airport was also attacked, Al Jazeera noted, “Syria state media has confirmed that Damascus International Airport has suffered major damage – including to runways – following an Israeli missile attack. The Syrian Transport Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that runways remained out of service at the capital’s airport following the attack on Friday, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported.”

Syrian state media said at the time, “Landing and departing flights were suspended today till further notification as a result of the Israeli aggression, since it caused heavy damage to the airstrips in several localities and to the navigation lights in addition to the damage [that] occurred in the airport lobby.”

“INSS Managing Director Maj. Gen. (res.) Tamir Hayman comments on the attack on Damascus International Airport, which foreign sources attribute to Israel,” a report from Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies noted.

“On the strategic level, the operational pressure in Syria is intended to halt Iran’s consolidation in Syria and demonstrate to the Syrian regime the cost of hosting the Iranians.... On the operational level – three objectives: Work against strategic arms shipments (missiles and UAVs); prevent the transfer of weapons, money and precision technology to Hezbollah; work against the infrastructure of Shi’ite militias, whose purpose is to attack Israel.”

A report in Syrian media said that there were airstrikes in Damascus on the same evening of the airstrike on Aleppo Airport. The incidents in Aleppo and Damascus this month, as well as in June, paint a picture of increasing focus on international airports in Syria. Syria has a number of airports that function, some of them are military and others are both military and civilian.

Damascus and Aleppo are important air hubs for Syria. Other airports include the T-4 base where Iran has tried to move air-defense systems and where Iran once based drones, the Mezzeh Military Airport in Damascus, the Hmeimim base used by Russia in Latakia, and the Shayrat Airbase that the US targeted in 2017.

The T-4 base was targeted by airstrikes in October 2021, January 2020 and April 2018. In May 2018, reports said the “Glass House” used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was targeted near Damascus Airport and that it was again targeted in November 2019.

What can be concluded from the number of airstrikes reported on airports in Syria?

Syria can't defend its own airspace

There appears to be a shift from targeting military airports to larger international airports. This may be due to Iran using these airports as cover for moving weapons to Syria and onward to Hezbollah. Iran wants to exploit these airports, which serve both civilian and military affairs. Syria’s regime needs these airports because the regime is facing economic difficulties and is trying to emerge into normality after years of civil war.

The regime can’t have normality if it can’t enable two of its major airports to function. Two strikes in short succession on the Aleppo Airport also illustrate that Syria cannot defend its airspace against the strikes. It appears to send a message to the regime to stop letting Iran use these airports.

It shows a level of impunity with which the attacker operates in Syria. However, the regime also repairs the airstrips quickly. This means that the strikes can also be seen as a kind of “whack-a-mole,” meaning the strikes continue but the regime keeps patching things up and moving on.

Iran also doesn’t pay a major price because it can simply wait and fly its munitions to another site. The question is whether the price is being raised for the Syrian regime and its partners in Russia and Iran, and whether this may encourage Iran to shift tactics and strategy.