Russia says Israel used two civilian aircraft as protection to carry out the strike in Syria

A Russian general on Thursday said Syrian air defenses did not engage Israeli jets, which reportedly carried out an attack in central Syria because there were two civilian aircraft in the air at the time.

A British-based war monitor said the alleged Israeli air strike in central Syria killed nine government officials, four of them Syrians and five of indefinite nationality.

Syrian Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit told the news site Sputnik that the strike was carried out by four Israeli F-16 jets.

“The Syrian military leadership decided not to use air defense systems because two civilian passenger planes were in the zone to destroy the air defense systems at the time of the Israeli air strike,” Kulit said.

Russia has repeatedly accused Israel of using civilian aircraft as a “shield” against Syrian air defenses, amid prolonged anger over a 2018 case, when the Syrian military shot down a Russian spy plane while responding to an Israeli attack on Syrian airspace.

Russia later declared Israel responsible for the incident, in which 15 crew members were killed, and said Israeli air force jets used the Russian plane as a cover.

In that case, the Israeli military flatly denied the claim that IDF jets used the spy plane as a shield, and defense analysts also doubt the conduct of such a maneuver.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad shake hands during their meeting in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Despite this, the incident led to a major diplomatic spit between Moscow and Jerusalem.

The Syrian state news agency SANA had previously quoted a military source as saying that the attack late on Wednesday near the city of Palmyra had killed one soldier and wounded three others.

“Around 11:34 p.m., the Israeli enemy carried out an air strike … in the Palmyra area, aimed at a communications tower and several positions in its vicinity,” the source told SANA.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked group with unclear funding, said the attack targeted several Iranian positions, including the communications tower, near the T4 air base east of Palmyra. The UK-based observatory has sometimes been accused of increasing the number of injuries.

It reported that the attack killed four Syrians fighting pro-Iranian groups supporting the government in Damascus, including a Syrian army soldier, as well as five others whose nationality was not immediately clear.

Neither Israel nor the United States has acknowledged the implementation of the attack. Israel does not generally comment on specific strikes it is alleged to be waging in Syria, but generally acknowledges that it is conducting operations against Iran – linked groups in the country to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons and to prevent attacks on Israel from Syria.

Last week, an Israeli missile attack on the same air base killed two foreign fighters pro-Iran, the observatory claimed.

SANA said six soldiers were injured in the attack.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has routinely carried out airstrikes in Syria, mainly targeting Syrian government troops, as well as allied Iranian and Lebanese forces.

Prior to the recent strike, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Haliva, said Iran was “continuing to promote undermining and terrorism” in the Middle East.

Illustrative: This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows anti-aircraft fire in the sky after US-led airstrikes targeting various parts of the Syrian capital Damascus in retaliation for the country’s alleged use of chemical weapons early Saturday, April 14, 2018 Syrian air defense responded to US joint strikes by France, France and the United Kingdom. (SANA via AP)

“We will continue to thwart Iran’s actions, secure and damage its capabilities, and take steps to preserve Israel’s power,” he said in comments released by the military.

Iran, a close ally of Assad, has both its own military presence in Syria and supports a number of predominantly Shiite militias in the country. These groups are fighting with Assad’s troops against the country’s opposition, but Israel claims that they are also being used to carry out attacks on Israel and to facilitate the transfer of weapons and other equipment throughout the region.

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