Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned Syria that Israel would continue to carry out airstrikes “as needed” after the Israeli Air Force destroyed a Syrian anti-aircraft battery in response to the firing of an interceptor missile at Israeli reconnaissance planes.
“Our policy is clear: Anyone who tries to hurt us, we will hurt them,” he said in a statement. “Today, they tried to hit our planes — this is not acceptable.”
“The air force acted with precision, swiftness and destroyed what needed to be destroyed,” Netanyahu added. “We will continue to act in the arena as much as needed to defend Israel’s security.”
On Monday morning, the Syrian air defense battery fired an interceptor missile at Israeli reconnaissance planes. In response, a second IAF sortie, reportedly made up of F-16 fighter jets, attacked the SA-5 missile defense system that launched the interceptor, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Following the airstrike, the Syrian military warned Israel of “dangerous consequences for its repeated attempts of aggression,” in a statement published in official state media.
The Syrian military claimed the IAF aircraft entered its airspace, prompting the anti-aircraft attack. But IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said, both initially and in response to the Syrian assertion, that the reconnaissance planes “were in the skies over Lebanon, and not in Syria.”
According to the Syrians, the planes were flying near the Lebanese city of Baalbek, which is located near the Syrian border, approximately 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Damascus.
The IDF would not confirm where the reconnaissance aircraft were flying when they were targeted.
Conricus said the reconnaissance planes were not struck by the interceptor missile, but the Syrian military claimed one Israeli plane was “directly hit” and “forced to flee.”
In response to the anti-aircraft missile, the IAF sent out a second sortie, which targeted the anti-aircraft system and “incapacitated” the offending SA-5 battery, the IDF said.
The SA-5, also known as the S-200, is a Russian-designed anti-aircraft system that has been in use since the late 1960s.
According to the Syrian statement, the anti-aircraft battery targeted the Israeli planes at 8:51 a.m., and the IAF retaliated approximately three hours later — which basically matched the timeline described by the Israeli military.
The Syrian military said the Israeli strike caused “material damage” to the battery, but did not report any casualties.
The exchange of fire was out of the ordinary for a number of reasons, notably that the Syrian military launched its interceptor missile not in response to an Israeli airstrike, but to a more mundane reconnaissance mission, and that the IDF did not retaliate immediately, but waited several hours before bombing the Syrian battery.
Analysts ascribed the former to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s battlefield successes, which may have prompted him to take a more aggressive approach toward Israel.
The delay in Israeli response, meanwhile, was seen as coming from the impending visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is due to arrive in Israel on Monday afternoon.
The Russian military is allied with Assad and operates extensively in the war-torn country, and so an airstrike against Syrian forces hours before Shoigu lands in Tel Aviv would likely require a more serious consideration and approval process.
According to Conricus, the Russians were notified of the Israeli airstrike on the SA-5 battery “in real-time.”
The spokesperson said that when Shoigu arrives in Tel Aviv, “he will get a full briefing on the matter.”
Conricus acknowledged the sensitivity of the timing of the incident and the potential for it to cause tension during Shoigu’s visit, but said the military was “confident it won’t influence anything else.”
“This was obviously not a pre-planned event,” he added.
In order to avoid unwanted clashes with the Russian troops in Syria, Jerusalem and Moscow have maintained a communication system over the past two years.
Israeli officials do not typically discuss the full extent of the coordination between the two militaries, but stress that the IDF does not seek Russian permission before carrying out airstrikes in Syria.
In general, Israel’s operation in Syria consist of bombing sites that are used to develop, store and transport advanced weaponry to the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group. There have also been cases of the IAF responding when mortar shells and rockets “spillover” into Israel from the fighting in Syria.
Conricus said that while the army will continue to defend itself, it was not looking to “destablize” the situation with Syria.
“Preserving the relative stability is a common interest,” the lieutenant colonel said.
According to Conricus, this was the first time that Israeli aircraft were targeted by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles over Lebanese airspace since the start of the Syrian civil war. However, it was not the first time that IAF jets had been attacked by an SA-5 system.
In March, Assad’s military fired multiple interceptor missiles from an SA-5 system at Israeli jets flying over Jordan on their way back from a bombing run in Syria. The IAF jets were unharmed, but one Syrian missile seemed to be on a trajectory that took it toward an Israeli community, and so it was shot down by the Arrow 2 air defense system, in the first reported use of the system.
However, in that case, Israel did not respond to the anti-aircraft attack on the IAF jets with a retaliatory airstrike on the SA-5 battery that launched it.