Israel conducted a rare attack on Syria’s main port overnight, hitting shipping containers, according to claims by Damascus.
Explosions lit up the sky over the port of Latakia, on the sliver of Mediterranean coast belonging to Syria between Lebanon and Turkey, in the early hours of the morning.
Israel made no comment, in line with its usual policy for conducting raids outside its borders. However, it has admitted in general terms that the Israeli Air Force has conducted hundreds of raids, both by jets and drones, in Syria in recent years. Its aim is to limit the use of Syrian territory by Iran to supply missiles and other weapons to militia forces targeting Israel.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said that the attack had struck an Iranian weapons shipment in the port’s container yard.
Latakia is usually out of bounds for Israeli attacks because it is regarded as firmly within the “Russian sphere of influence” in Syria but Israel’s leadership, particularly the former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is widely believed to have won assurances from President Putin that he would not interfere with the bombing campaign so long as Russian interests were not affected.
That close relationship almost came to an end after the last major Israeli attack near Latakia, on a munitions warehouse in 2018, when Syrian air defences shot down a Russian military reconnaissance aircraft that was in the area, killing all 15 people on board. Russia accused the Israeli jets that carried out the raid of using the aircraft as “cover”.
The main Russian air base in the country, Hmeimim, which was used by Moscow to help President Assad bomb rebels into submission during the civil war, is less than ten miles southeast of Latakia.
An explosion was reported on board a cargo ship docked off Latakia in August, hinting that Israel might have started to push back into the Russian zone of influence.
Today the Syrian state news agency said Israel had carried out “an aggression” against Latakia, with missiles hitting the container yard from the sea. A number of “commercial containers” were struck, it said, without specifying what was inside them. There were no reported casualties.
Latakia is the main access point to and from Syria, and is said to have long been under the direct control of the Assad family, who originate from nearby.
Recently it has been the shipping point from Syria for large quantities of Captagon, an amphetamine-like drug widely used across the Middle East. Its production and smuggling is said to have been masterminded by President Assad’s cousin, Remi Makhlouf, who is now in disgrace. Huge shipments have turned up as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Italy.
The port’s main military use is for the import of weaponry, including for Iranian militias. From Latakia it can be easily transported across the country and into Lebanon for the use of Hezbollah, which maintains a large arsenal of missiles, many supplied by Iran, which are trained on Israel.