'Israel is adding to our suffering': Passengers suffer travel chaos as Israeli attack shuts down Damascus airport

Damascus airport
5 min read
21 June, 2022
Passengers found their flights cancelled and their plans shattered following the June 10 attack, as they scampered for long and often arduous alternatives in an air passenger’s worst nightmare, with many left stranded and unable to leave.  

As baffled Syrian air travellers awoke to the barely believable news that both runways in Damascus International Airport had been bombarded, they hurried desperately for alternatives, leaving Syria’s already strained aviation industry on the brink.

The June 10 attack rendered Syrian Airlines’ entire fleet grounded and unable to re-direct until costly repairs to the runways were made, which began last week. 

"Flights from the country are so limited anyway so the airport closing was hell"

The Syrian ministry confirmed in a statement that runways were out of service with serious damage after the attack.

Passengers found their flights cancelled and their plans shattered as they scampered for long and often arduous alternatives in an air passenger’s worst nightmare, many were left stranded, unable to leave.  

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Twenty-two-year-old UAE fashion student Carla Melhem was visiting her parents in Damascus when the airport closed.

“It was a disaster for me, the flight was cancelled and I didn’t know what to do, it was a major disruption and most of the people who suffered are just normal people trying to travel," she told The New Arab.

"Flights from the country are so limited anyway so the airport closing was hell.”

She had to rebook tickets and fly from Lebanon at an increased cost. “I had to spend over $1,000, which I barely gathered – after selling some gold – just to get back to the UAE through Lebanon. It was a long journey and double my initial flight ticket, if this happened anywhere else it would be condemned by everyone.”

Only two operational civilian aircraft were left in the whole country, two A320’s owned by private company Cham wings, and both managed to successfully redirect to Aleppo.

Travel chaos for passengers after Damascus airport closure
A Cham Wings Airlines Airbus A320-211 managed to successfully redirect to Aleppo [Getty]

Ahmad Qabani, a computer engineer, told The New Arab that he almost missed a job interview in Irbil which he had to postpone twice, after making the gruelling six-hour-long journey to Aleppo airport.  

“You don’t get good job opportunities every day, so when I got the call from Irbil I started preparing and booked my flight," the 25-year-old explained. "After the attack, the airport was shut down and I felt further away from reaching my dreams than ever before. I was depressed.”

With the ensuing chaos, the only tangible options were to travel to neighbouring Lebanon or Aleppo where a handful of limited fights were scheduled.

Ahmad averred: “I didn’t have the option to travel to Lebanon, too expensive, so I took the long coach trip to Aleppo and got the Cham wings flight to Irbil. It wasn’t smooth and I waited for days – long, dark hours in the airport. Thank God for Aleppo airport.”

"After the attack, the airport was shut down and I felt further away from reaching my dreams than ever before. I was depressed”

The Israeli attack added more woe and misery to a country suffering from an economic crisis, international sanctions, and a civil war since 2011 that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

According to reports, Israel deliberately targeted the airport's runways to prevent Iranian attempts to deliver advanced weapons systems to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah – which has intervened in the Syrian conflict in support of the Assad government – through Damascus Airport.

“Today we feel trapped, and restricted because everything is closed to us, it’s not normal that an airport is bombed. Israel is adding to our suffering, it's directly affecting us as civilians. What more can you say, when the biggest airport in the country is taken out, without even blinking,” Ahmed continued. 

Travel chaos for passengers after Damascus airport closure
Passengers queue to have their passports checked at Syria's Aleppo airport after flights were diverted [Getty]

The Syrian Ministry of Transport issued an apology, promising to compensate those affected and confirmed that “customers will be recompensated or their flights rebooked for all those affected by the closure of the airport, we will also refund all negative PCR tests."

Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, visited the damaged airport, promising its re-opening within the last weeks of June.

A retired Syrian Captain told The New Arab that the damage was extensive and this was the first time in his 40-year aviation career he has seen such an event.

"The Israelis had no regard for civilians or their plans and safety. It was dangerous"

Speaking on condition of anonymity he said, “To have a major airport in a country bombed out of use for weeks due to a direct military strike on the runways is unprecedented. The Israelis had no regard for civilians or their plans and safety. It was dangerous, God forbid many people could have been killed.”

He continued, “We already live in a time where there are many difficulties here, petrol, cooking gas, and electricity are in short supply, so to paralyse an entire aviation network in the country is a direct attempt to punish the civilian population, I know people who were stranded for days at the airport, it was an absolute worst-case scenario.”

Travel chaos for passengers after Damascus airport closure
Passengers at Syria's Aleppo airport after flights were diverted from Damascus airport [Getty]

Amid the chaos, there was a positive note in that Aleppo International Airport, which had been operating at limited capacity since reopening in 2020 when it received its first scheduled flight for eight years, managed to serve as a viable alternative.

Aleppo-based Syrian official Fares Shehabi was in awe of the performance of Aleppo airport in the difficult circumstances. “Aleppo International Airport took its historical right as an international airport and as the country’s economic capital. Its cadres are highly competent and can manage and operate a large and modern airport. We hope that all its employees will be rewarded without exception after serving this large number of flights suddenly without prior preparation and planning.”

Aleppo successfully received dozens of flights even though it was operating at a small capacity.

Social media users added: “Aleppo airport is the best airport in Syria in terms of organisation, accuracy, smoothness, handling, good reception and cleanliness” and another user added, “we are all proud of the job you have done in this unprecedented situation.”

With Damascus International Airport set to be reopened after costly maintenance there is no guarantee that such strikes won’t happen again, and for a country suffering from an economic crisis among many other fundamental problems, who’s to say the damage – at least on the material level – won’t further hinder Syrian aviation.

Danny Makki is an analyst covering the internal dynamics of the conflict in Syria, he specializes in Syria’s relations with Russia and Iran.

Follow him on Twitter: @danny_makki