Russia's Defense Ministry has issued a rare scathing public condemnation of the latest round of Israeli airstrikes which occurred Wednesday night into the early hours of Thursday morning in and around Damascus.
Though brief in duration, they have been described as among the most intense over the past year, and included multiple aerial intercepts of inbound missiles by Syrian air defenses.
On Friday Russian Defense Ministry Igor Konashenkov spokesman said Israel's attack directly endangered a passenger airliner. "An Airbus-320 with 172 passengers on board could have been targeted by Syrian missile defense systems because of Israel's airstrikes on the Damascus suburbs on February 6, the plane was escorted out of the danger zone and assisted in landing at the Hmeymim air base," he told reporters, according to TASS.
The plane en route from Tehran to Damascus was reportedly preparing to land in the Syrian capital, but according to the Kremlin statement narrowly escaped "the lethal zone of artillery fire," and was diverted to a Russian air base in Latakia.
"Only thanks to the prompt actions of dispatchers at Damascus airport and the effective work of the automated system of monitoring air traffic, the Airbus-320 was escorted out of the danger zone and assisted in successfully landing at an aerodrome at the Russian air base Hmeymim," Major General Konashenkov added.
And in a situation which closely resembles Russian accusations related to the accidental September 2018 downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane over the Mediterranean by Syrian anti-air defenses attempting to defend against a major inbound Israeli attack (resulting in the deaths of 15 Russian crew members), Russia has accused Israel of using the civilian passenger jet as "cover" during this latest attack.
According to TASS:
"The Israeli General Staff's military air operations using passenger jets for cover or [for] blocking of retaliatory fire by Syrian missile systems is becoming a typical trait of the Israeli Air Force," he [Maj.Gen. Konashenkov] noted.
He said that the Israeli Air Force hit the outskirts of Damascus with airstrikes on February 6 without entering Syria's airspace. Israeli fighter jets fired eight air-to surface missiles. The Syrian military used its missile defense systems to repel the airstrikes.
Russia has tended to remain quiet for most limited Israeli assaults on Syria and "pro-Iranian forces" inside the war-torn country, making this new condemnation and accusation of essentially using civilian aviation as a 'human shield' a rarity.
Rare, angry statement from the Russian Defense Ministry accuses Israel of systematically exploiting the presence of civilian airliners to block air defenses when firing into Syria. Recalls the ministry's explanation for the IL-20 shootdown in 2018. https://t.co/Hdzwyvqjcz— Aron Lund (@aronlund) February 7, 2020
Over the past two years President Putin has articulated 'red lines' with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, essentially turning a blind eye to attacks on Iranian assets in Syria but condemning overt attacks on Syrian government bases and facilities.
The other interesting timing aspect to the new Russian allegations is that this very scenario just played out over Iranian skies on January 8 with the tragic accidental downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, killing all 176 people on board. The Iranians fired at least two anti-air defense missiles thinking the country was under attack by the United States.
Given the number of major Israeli attacks on Damascus over the past years, it's likely there's already been "near misses" involving the same scenario. Damascus International Airport was closed for years, but over the past year opened again to civilian airline traffic, though most carriers long ago halted service to Syria.