An Airbus A320 with 172 civilian passengers on board has been forced to make an emergency landing due to Israeli airstrikes in Syria. The plane, operated by Syrian Cham Wings, flew into the path of retaliatory fire by Syrian air defenses. It made a safe landing at Khmeimim airbase near to Damascus.
Russia has claimed that a commercial aircraft has been forced into an emergency landing after Israel launched airstrikes on Syria. According to Haaretz, just after 2am on Thursday, four Israeli F-16 fighters launched eight air to ground missiles from outside of Syrian airspace, targeting suburbs of Damascus.
Retaliatory fire from Syrian air defenses came heart-stoppingly close to shooting down the A320 aircraft, which the Guardian reports had 172 passengers on board. The aircraft was diverted to Khmeimim airbase rather than continuing to its planned destination of Damascus, where it made a safe emergency landing.
While Russian defense spokespeople have not named the airline, data from Flight Radar suggests it was a Syrian Cham Wings plane. The flight was operating the short hop between Najaf (NJF) and Damascus (DAM) before it was diverted at the last minute.
The Israeli military has been accused of using civilian aircraft as a ‘shield’ by Russia’s defense ministry. Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov told MEHR that,
“Israeli General Staff’s military operations in the air using passenger jets for cover or block of response fire by Syrian missile systems is becoming a typical trait of Israeli Air Force.”
Did Israel use the aircraft as a shield?
Russia argues that Israel is well briefed on civilian aircraft activity around the region, and in particular around Damascus. Konashenkov is reported by RT to have said,
“Tel Aviv is perfectly aware of civilian flight routes and air activity around Damascus, day and night, and such reckless missions prove that Israeli strategists could not care less about possible civilian casualties.”
Israel has been criticized for putting commercial flights at risk in the past. In 2018, Moscow accused it of jeopardizing the safety of two passenger flights which were landing at Beirut and Damascus airports, again running worryingly close to airstrikes from Israeli forces. Six F-16s flew in just as the two aircraft were coming into land, but Syria held back on deployment of surface to air missiles “to prevent a tragedy”.
Also in 2018, Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian military aircraft, killing 15 people on board. Syria claims that Israel was using the Russian surveillance plane as ‘cover’ for its F-16s. In all cases, Israel has firmly denied any responsibility, and it is unlikely to offer up any apology for yesterday’s incident either.
ATC applauded for quick actions
The Russian defense ministry has praised the quick actions of air traffic control in Damascus for getting the aircraft out of harm’s way. Konashenkov said,
“Only thanks to prompt actions of dispatchers at Damascus airport and effective work of the automated system of monitoring air traffic, the Airbus-320 was escorted from the danger zone and assisted in successfully landing at an aerodrome at the Russian airbase Hmeymim.”
This latest event comes less than a month after a Ukrainian passenger jet was accidentally shot down by Iranian forces, killing all on board. Syrian airspace has only been properly open for commercial aviation for a year, with airlines like Qatar making a comeback as the state of the civil war seemed to have abated.
But, perhaps this incident will change that, again.