After Iran drone incursion, US says it backs Israel’s right to defend itself

While State Department slams Tehran for its ‘malign activities,’ Putin tells Netanyahu to avoid triggering a ‘new spiral’ of clashes

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The United States voiced its support for Israel after the Jewish state struck Iranian positions inside Syria on Saturday, following the interception of an Iranian drone in Israeli airspace, blaming Iran for an escalation of violence.

“Iran’s calculated escalation of threat, and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the‎ region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

“The US continues to push back on the totality of Iran’s malign activities in the region and calls for an end to Iranian behavior that threatens peace and stability.”

The Pentagon also voiced support for Israel following an exchange of fire on Israel’s northern border, which was sparked by the incursion of the Iranian UAV into Israeli skies and saw an Israeli F-16 crash in the north.

“Israel is our closest security partner in the region and we fully support Israel’s inherent right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people,” said US Defense Department spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway, according to Reuters.

“We share the concerns of many throughout the region that Iran’s destabilizing activities that threaten international peace and security, and we seek greater international resolve in countering Iran’s malign activities,” he added.

He also said the US was not involved in Israel’s military response.

A picture taken in Kibbutz Harduf in northern Israel on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

The statement of support from the Pentagon came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will continue to defend itself, including by acting against Iranian efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria.

“Israel wants peace but we will continue to defend ourselves with determination against any attack on us and against any attempt by Iran to entrench itself militarily in Syria or anywhere else,” Netanyahu said in a filmed statement from the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, adding that Israel “holds Iran and its Syrian hosts responsible for today’s aggression.”

Netanyahu also said that he spoke with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, noting that Israeli-Russian military coordination vis-a-vis Syria will continue.

“I want to clarify: Israel seeks peace but we will continue to defend ourselves resolutely against any attack against us and against any attempt by Iran to establish itself militarily against us in Syria or anywhere else,” Netanyahu said.

“Our policy is absolutely clear: Israel will defend itself against any attack and any attempt to harm our sovereignty,” he said. “Iran made such an attempt today. It brazenly violated our sovereignty, it infiltrated its aircraft into Israeli territory from Syrian territory,” he said, referring to an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 29, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

During their talk, Putin told Netanyahu to avoid “any steps which might trigger a new spiral of dangerous-for-all confrontation in the region,” according to the state-owned TASS news agency.

The drone remained in Israeli airspace for a minute and a half before it was downed by a combat helicopter. Israeli then launched airstrikes on a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria, including on the control center that launched the UVA.

“This is both our right and our duty and we will continue to make use of it as necessary. Let no one make a mistake,” Netanyahu said.

A picture taken on February 10, 2018 shows Israeli solders taking positions in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria. (AFP/ JALAA MAREY)

The Israeli airstrikes marked “the biggest and most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses since Operation Peace for the Galilee” in 1982 during the First Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command Brig. Gen, Tomer Bar said Saturday.

Syria’s responding anti-aircraft fire led to the apparent downing of an Israeli F-16, in which two pilots were injured, one seriously and another lightly. Both were being treated at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.

“I have been warning for some time about the dangers of Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. Iran seeks to use Syrian territory to attack Israel for its professed goal of destroying Israel,” Netanyahu said. Iran sending a drone into Israeli airspace “demonstrates that our warnings were 100% correct,” he added. “We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereignty and our security.”

In his conversation with Putin — with whom he met last week in Moscow — Netanyahu said he reiterated Israel’s “right and obligation” to defend itself against attacks emanating from Syrian territory. “We agreed that the security coordination between our armies would continue,” said Netanyahu, referring to the so-called deconfliction mechanism that is geared to guaranteed that Israeli and Russian aircraft don’t collide over Syrian skies.

Israel has issued several stern warnings of late about the increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli cabinet just held a meeting near the Syrian border to highlight the new threats, which it attributes to Iran’s growing confidence given the success of the government of Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war thanks to their support.

Israel called the drone infiltration a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” and warned that Iran would be held accountable for its meddling, raising the specter of a larger confrontation in an area that has remained largely stable since a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

“This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said in a statement earlier Saturday. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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