The Israeli military on Saturday accused Iran of controlling an airbase outside the Syrian city of Palmyra, from which the army said the Iranian drone that was shot down over northern Israel earlier in the day was launched.
“Iran and the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ special unit] Quds Force for some time have been operating the T-4 Air Base in Syria next to Palmyra, with support from the Syrian military and with permission from the Syrian regime,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement on Saturday night.
Notably missing from the army’s statement was an accusation that Russia — the main powerbroker in Syria and dictator Bashar Assad’s most important supporter — had also been allowing Iran and its Quds Force, responsible for operations outside Iran, to operate the air base.
An Israeli military official said the T-4 Air Base, also known as the Tiyas Air Base, is being used by Iran and its Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force to transport advanced weaponry to other members of its “axis,” which is made up of Syria, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias in the region.
“It is part of a process of a force build-up against Israel,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On Saturday morning, a drone that the army claims was piloted by an Iranian operator entered northern Israeli airspace near the Jordanian border.
Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command, said the drone remained in Israel’s airspace for a minute and a half, before being taken out by an Apache attack helicopter over the northern Israeli city of Beit Shean.
A short while later, Israel destroyed the mobile caravan from which it says the drone was being operated in the T-4 Air Base in central Syria.
The military official said the Iranians have been operating the base for several months, claiming that they were doing so as part of the fight against terror groups in Syria.
For a long time Iran and the Quds Force have been operating, with the backing of Syrian forces and the approval of the Syrian regime, from the Syrian T-4 Airbase near Tadmor. pic.twitter.com/U9H33vDF4O
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) February 10, 2018
“However, the actions carried out in the past day show that the true purpose was to take direct violent action against Israel,” the official said.
Israeli political and military leaders have long warned that Iran was working to establish local air and naval bases from which it could arm Hezbollah and other Shiite groups in Syria, as well as carry out attacks of its own.
On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an English video message that the day’s events had proved Israel’s claims.
“This morning Iran brazenly violated Israel’s sovereignty. They dispatched an Iranian drone from Syrian territory into Israel,” Netanyahu said. “And this demonstrates that our warnings were 100 percent correct.”
After the UAV was intercepted, Israel targeted at least 12 other sites “including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria,” according to a military statement.
Bar said Israel inflicted significant damage on Syrian air defenses, while saying the Israeli response was “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.
Syria’s responding anti-aircraft fire led to the downing of an Israeli fighter plane in which two pilots were injured, one seriously and another lightly. Both were being treated at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
Israel said the drone infiltration was a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” and warned of further action against unprecedented Iranian aggression.
The events marked a dramatic escalation in tensions along Israel’s northern border, and were part of the most serious confrontation between Israel and Iran since the start of the civil war in Syria in March 2011.
Bar described the incident as “Syrian chutzpah,” and said Israel responded accordingly, adding that the airstrikes inflicted “significant harm to the Syrian Air Force’s defenses,” which included “anti-aircraft batteries purchased in recent deals [with the Russians].”
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus warned that Syria and Iran were “playing with fire,” but stressed his country was not seeking an escalation. “This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty in the last years,” Conricus told journalists in a phone conference.
The Israeli military said its planes faced massive anti-aircraft fire from Syria that forced the two pilots to abandon an F-16 jet that crashed in northern Israel. Bar said the pilots did not report being hit but carried out ejection procedures.
“We are verifying what caused the pilots’ injuries,” Bar said, “whether from an anti-aircraft missile or from ejecting. It’s not clear whether the missile hit the plane but we are assuming it did.”
If the plane was in fact shot down by enemy fire, it could mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, and IDF Chief-of-Staff Gadi Eizenkot were convening with top brass at military headquarters in Tel Aviv for emergency consultations on Saturday to discuss a possible further response.
Meanwhile, Iran and Syria claimed Israeli allegations that an Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli airspace were lies.
TOI staff and Agencies contributed to this report.