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US ‘inspects’ Iranian passenger plane over Syria

What happened: A US official has confirmed that one of its fighter jets inspected a Mahan Air passenger plane over Syrian airspace, despite Iranian media initially accusing Israel of the incident.

  • Iran’s official IRIB news agency initially reported the Mahan Airlines flight en route to Beirut from Tehran had to manoeuvre after being “harassed” by an Israeli warplane, injuring several passengers.  However, later reports in Iran and Syria indicated that the passenger plan was approached by two US fighter jets.
  • The US military’s Central Command, which oversees American troops in the region, said one of its F-15 aircraft was conducting a visual inspection of the Iranian aircraft when it passed near the Tanf garrison in Syria where US forces are present. The military force added the intercept was carried out in accordance with international standards at a safe distance of 1,000m (3,820 ft).
  • Mahan Air has been blacklisted by the US for participating in the transfer of weaponry from Iran to its Shiite proxies in Syria, including Hezbollah. In May, the US also sanctioned a Chinese company for doing business with the Iranian carrier.
  • Yesterday the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sent a small group of military reinforcements to the border with Lebanon in anticipation of an attack by Hezbollah following the death of one of its fighters in Syria earlier this week. One battalion and a number of troops were deployed to the Northern Command’s Galilee Division.

Context: Whilst Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes in Syria over the last four years, which have largely targeted Iranian weapons shipments to its proxies and Hezbollah, threatening a passenger jet during the daytime would be a highly irregular incident.

  • The inspection of the Mahan Air plane came amid heightened tensions on Israel’s northern border and days after an alleged Israeli airstrike near Damascus on Monday evening.
  • The strike targeted several sites around the capital, including a major ammunition depot, reportedly killing several Iranian and Syrian personnel as well as Hezbollah militant Ali Kamel Mohsen.
  • Following the alleged Israeli strike, the Lebanese Al-Akhbar reported that Hezbollah had raised its alert level “to monitor activities” of IDF soldiers along the Israeli-Lebanese border, as well as statements attributed to Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah suggested that Israel should be wary of an attack.
  • The last time Hezbollah confirmed that one of its fighters was killed in an Israeli attack in Syria, in August 2019, it fired three anti-tank guided missiles towards an IDF post and military ambulance near the towns of Avivim and Yir’on in northern Israel.
  • Amos Yadlin, former IDF Intelligence director, said on Twitter that whilst both sides are preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic and do not want a war, escalation is still possible. “When Lebanon is in an unprecedented economic crisis, due to a combination of corruption, political decay and terrorism … Hezbollah, which is pulling strings in the ‘government’ in the capital, [could try] to create distractions by an external crisis.”

Looking ahead: The IDF’s decision to increase in presence on the northern border indicates that the military is preparing for a reaction by Hezbollah.

  • Despite no causalities on the Israeli side after the launching of three anti-tank missiles in August 2019, the IDF responded by firing over 100 mortars shells towards targets in south Lebanon, showing how easy an  major escalation could materialise.
  • Last week, Lt.-Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Head of the US Central Command, warned against Hezbollah attacking Israel in light of pressures that it is facing due to the economic crisis in Lebanon, saying: “I think it would be a great mistake for Hezbollah to try to carry out operations against Israel. I can’t see that having a good ending.”