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Syrian aviation risk

15 January 2019 Columb Strack

The director of Syrian Air, Shafa al-Nouri, told the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on 13 January that several Gulf-based airlines were preparing to resume scheduled flights to Damascus International Airport.

  • Security at Damascus International Airport has improved, but IHS Markit assesses that there is a residual elevated risk of random collateral damage to aircraft on the ground from Israeli airstrikes and occasional indirect rocket or mortar fire by jihadist militants.
  • In the event of Israeli airstrikes on targets in Damascus province, which have occurred about once or twice a month, there is a high risk of accidental shootdown for aircraft approaching Damascus International Airport from Syrian surface-to-air missiles.

Airlines considering a resumption of flights to Damascus, Syria, reportedly included the UAE's Etihad Airways, Bahrain's Gulf Air, and Oman Air. The announcement follows the normalisation of diplomatic relations between several Arab countries and the Assad government in recent weeks. The UAE reopened their embassy in Damascus on 27 December, and Bahrain and Kuwait have since announced that they intend to follow.

Risks to aircraft on the ground

Damascus International Airport is no longer at risk of coming under sustained indirect fire or ground attack by the opposition, following the government's recapture of the last opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in May 2018. There remains an elevated risk, however, of random collateral damage to aircraft on the ground from occasional indirect weapons fire by jihadist militant cells operating in the desert areas to the east of Damascus. The last recorded incident of this kind took place on 31 January 2018, when unidentified militants fired several mortars bombs at the airport, targeting a plane that had just landed carrying the Syrian government delegation returning from the Sochi summit in Russia. At least one of the rounds detonated within 100-200 m of an aircraft next to the main terminal, according to a photograph shared on social media.

Israel regularly carries out airstrikes against Iran's and its proxies' military presence in Syria and suspected shipments of advanced weapons or missile components to Hizbullah at Damascus International Airport. On 9 December 2018, Israeli airstrikes reportedly targeted Iranian warehouses on the perimeter of the airport. This was denied by the Syrian government. Previously, on 15 September and on 26 June 2018, Israeli airstrikes reportedly destroyed Iranian cargo aircraft after they had been unloaded at the airport. Israel's use of precision munitions and precautions to avoid civilian casualties, however, mitigates the risk of collateral damage to civilian aircraft and the main terminal building. There would be a severe risk of collateral damage to commercial aircraft on the ground at Damascus International Airport from airstrikes and cruise missiles in the event of another war between Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon, which would most likely extend to southern Syria, including Damascus. IHS Markit assesses that, while neither side is seeking war, there is a high likelihood of such a war in the next 12 months, most probably as a result of one side's miscalculation.

Risks to aircraft in flight

The only parties capable of targeting aircraft at cruising altitude are the Syrian government and other state actors operating in Syria. There is a high risk of accidental shoot-down by Syrian government air-defences for aircraft, including commercial airliners, in or near Syrian airspace, in the event of Israeli or US Coalition airstrikes. On 17 September 2018, a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile launched in response to an Israeli airstrike against a facility in Homs province accidentally shot down a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft over the Mediterranean. Although this incident appears to have resulted in reduced Russian tolerance of Israeli airstrikes in northwestern Syria, and the Russian air base close to Latakia, IHS Markit expects Israel to continue to conduct airstrikes in and around Damascus province about once or twice per month, almost certainly resulting in the launch of Syrian surface-to-air missiles.

Outlook and implications

Although the security situation at Damascus International Airport has improved, IHS Markit assesses that there is a residual elevated risk of random collateral damage to aircraft on the ground, primarily from Israeli airstrikes, but also from occasional indirect rocket or mortar fire by jihadist militants. Aircraft approaching Damascus International Airport are at high risk of accidental shootdown from Syrian surface-to-air missiles in the event of Israeli airstrikes on targets in Damascus province, which have occurred about once or twice a month. An indicator of decreasing risk would be a reduction of Israeli airstrikes in southern Syria, either due to increased Russian pressure, or because of Iran becoming less reliant on Damascus airport as an entry point for weapons components. Any military exchanges between Israel and Hizbullah or Iranian forces in the Golan area would indicate an increasing risk of Israeli airstrikes and collateral damage to aircraft operating at Damascus International Airport.

Posted 15 January 2019 by Columb Strack, Principal Analyst – Middle East and North Africa, Country Risk, IHS Markit

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