A Russian general on Thursday said that Syrian air defenses did not engage Israeli jets that reportedly carried out a strike in central Syria because there were two civilian airliners in the air at the time.
A Britain-based war monitor said the alleged Israeli airstrike in central Syria killed nine pro-government fighters, four of them Syrians and five of undetermined nationality.
Syrian Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit told the Sputnik news site that the strike was carried out by four Israeli F-16 jets.
“The Syrian military leadership decided not to use air defense systems since at the time of the Israeli aviation attack, two civilian passenger aircraft were in the zone of destruction of the anti-aircraft systems,” Kulit said.
Russia has repeatedly accused Israel of using civilian aircraft as a “shield” against Syrian air defenses, amid lingering anger over a case in 2018, when the Syrian military shot down a Russian spy plane while responding to an Israeli strike over Syrian airspace.
Russia later declared that Israel was responsible for that incident, in which 15 crew members were killed, saying the Israel Air Force jets used the Russian plane as cover.
In that case, the Israeli military flatly denied the allegation that IDF jets had used the spy plane as shield, and defense analysts also cast doubts on the feasibility of such a maneuver.
Nevertheless, the incident led to a major diplomatic spat between Moscow and Jerusalem.
The Syrian state news agency SANA had earlier quoted a military source as saying that the late Wednesday attack near the city of Palmyra had killed a soldier and wounded three others.
“At around 11:34 p.m., the Israeli enemy carried out an aerial aggression… on the area of Palmyra, targeting a communication 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 that the attack targeted several Iranian positions, among them the communication tower, near the T4 airbase east of Palmyra. The Britain-based Observatory has at times been accused of inflating casualty numbers.
It reported that the attack killed four Syrians fighting with pro-Iran groups backing the Damascus government, including one Syrian army soldier, as well as five others whose nationality was not immediately clear.
Neither Israel nor the United States has acknowledged conducting the attack. Israel, as a rule, does not comment on specific strikes it allegedly carries out in Syria, but does generally acknowledge that it conducts operations against Iran-linked groups in the country in order to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons and to prevent attacks against Israel from Syria.
Last week, an Israeli missile strike on the same airbase killed two pro-Iran foreign fighters, the Observatory claimed.
SANA said six soldiers were wounded in that attack.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has routinely carried out airstrikes inside Syria, mostly targeting Syrian government troops, as well as allied Iranian and Lebanese forces.
Before the latest strike, Israel’s head of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Haliva, said Iran was “continuing to promote subversion and terror” in the Middle East.
“We will continue to hinder Iran’s actions, to hedge and harm its abilities, and take action to preserve Israel’s power,” he said in comments relayed by the military.
Iran, a close ally of Assad, both maintains its own military presence in Syria and supports a number of predominantly Shiite militias in the country. These groups fight alongside Assad’s troops against the country’s opposition, but Israel maintains they also are used to conduct attacks against Israel and to facilitate the transfer of weapons and other materiel throughout the region.