IDF after downing plane: We warned Syria against entering Israeli airspace

Israeli military says it stressed repeatedly it would not allow breach; adds Sukhoi fighter jet took off from Iran-linked base, traveled two kilometers over Golan Heights border

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: In this handout file photo provided by the Israeli Army on February 22, 2001, a Patriot anti-missile missile is launched on the last day of joint five-day US-Israeli military exercise in the Negev desert. (Israel Defense Forces/AFP)
Illustrative: In this handout file photo provided by the Israeli Army on February 22, 2001, a Patriot anti-missile missile is launched on the last day of joint five-day US-Israeli military exercise in the Negev desert. (Israel Defense Forces/AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday said it had repeatedly warned Syria against flying aircraft close to the border before shooting down a fighter jet that the military claims traveled two kilometers into Israeli territory.

“We issued numerous warnings through numerous channels and in various languages to make sure that no one on the other side violates Israeli airspace or threatens Israeli civilians or sovereignty,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

According to the Israeli military, a Syrian Sukhoi fighter jet entered Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights on Tuesday afternoon, traveling approximately two kilometers (one mile) before it was shot down by two Israeli Patriot interceptor missiles.

Syria confirmed that its aircraft had been shot down by Israel and said it crashed in the Yarmouk Basin in southwestern Syria.

One of the pilots, identified as Col. Amran Mara’e, was killed when the plane was shot down, a Syrian military source told the Russian Sputnik news outlet. The fate of the other airman was not immediately known.

Smoke trails from two Israeli Patriot interceptor missiles that Israel says shot down a Syrian fighter jet are seen in northern Israel on July 24, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The plane was involved in Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s renewed offensive against the rebel-held Daraa and Quneitra provinces, near the Israeli border. The Assad regime’s campaign began in mid-June and has seen a number of victories, with many rebel factions surrendering and giving up their weapons.

In recent days, these efforts have stepped up near the Israeli border as the Syrian military, aided by Russia, seeks to defeat the last holdouts of opposition.

“The Syrian army is conducting an operation to clear the remaining terrorists in the pocket, covering an area of 50 square kilometers along the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Today, Syrian and Jordanian planes have been bombing terrorist positions in the area since 8 a.m.,” the Syrian military source told Sputnik.

This was confirmed by the Israeli military.

“Regime forces have been approaching areas close to our border. That, of course, has increased friction. We have been on elevated readiness levels on a variety of systems, both aerial defense systems and ground defense systems… in order to detect and if necessary repel any violations of our sovereignty,” Conricus said.

“During the day, there has been a significant, irregular, high amount of aerial activity on the Syrian side,” he added.

Conricus said the military had passed warning messages to Syria throughout the day about violations of Israeli airspace through Russia, one of Assad’s closest allies, and the UN peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights, UNDOF.

Minutes before the plane was shot down, Syria’s state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV was broadcasting footage from the fence demarcating the UN buffer zone between Syrian and Israeli forces inside the Golan Heights. A UN observer post could be seen just on the other side of the fence.

The official Syrian news outlet SANA accused Israel of aiding the “terrorists” in the country’s southwest.

Israel fired at “one of our war planes, which are leveling [terrorist] encampments in the Saida region on the outskirts of the Yarmouk Basin, in Syrian airspace,” the outlet quoted a military source as saying.

File: A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber lands at the Russian Hmeimin military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015. (Paul Gypteau/AFP)

The Israeli military said it was not immediately certain if the plane was a Sukhoi-22 or a Sukhoi-24, two different types of Russian-made fighter jets in use by the Syrian Air Force.

According to the Al-Masdar news outlet, which is generally seen as supportive of the Assad regime, the felled aircraft was a Sukhoi-22 fighter jet.

Conricus said Israel has been in regular contact with the Russian military, which operates extensively in southwestern Syria, in order to prevent any conflict with Moscow.

According to the IDF, the fighter jet took off from the Iran-linked T-4 air force base in central Syria, which Israel has bombed in the past, and traveled “at high speed” toward the Golan Heights.

Conricus said there was no “confusion” about the fact that this was a Syrian fighter jet. In the past, Israel has hesitated in shooting down incoming aircraft out of concerns they might belong to Russia.

Israel stressed that it will continue to enforce the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement, which requires Syria to abide by a demilitarized zone between the two countries

A Syrian fighter jet is seen in flames after it was hit by the Israeli military over the Golan Heights on September 23, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/JALAA MAREY)

This was the first time that Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet since 2014, when another Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet entered Israeli airspace and was targeted with a Patriot missile.

“Israel has a very clear policy: No plane, and certainly not a Syrian plane, is allowed to enter our airspace” without the appropriate authorization, Israel’s former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told Army Radio soon after Tuesday’s incident. “Any plane identified as an enemy plane is shot down,” he said.

In February of this year, the Syrian military shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet as it was taking part in a bombing raid against an Iranian-linked airfield in central Syria after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace, according to the IDF. The F-16’s pilot and navigator were injured as they bailed out of the aircraft, which crashed to ground in northern Israel.

Tuesday’s breach of Israeli airspace and the interception set off incoming rocket alert sirens throughout northeastern Israel, sending thousands of residents rushing to bomb shelters for the second day in a row.

An Israeli man watches the smoke trail of a David’s Sling interceptor missile in the northern Israeli city of Safed after the interceptor was fired toward a Syrian SS-21 missile, on July 23, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Residents of northern Israel reported seeing white trails in the sky.

The Safed municipality told residents that air defense systems in the area had fired interceptor missiles and said there were no special safety instructions in light of the situation.

The alarms could be heard in the Golan Heights and Jordan Valley regions, the army said.

The sirens came a day after Israel launched two David’s Sling interceptor missiles at a pair of Syrian surface-to-surface missiles carrying approximately a half ton of explosives each that appeared to be heading toward Israel, but ultimately landed inside Syria. The Israeli interceptors did not strike the Syrian missiles: one was self-detonated by the IAF; the second reportedly fell to earth inside Syria.

The military’s air defense systems that detect and track incoming missiles and rockets are less accurate immediately after a projectile is launched, as they have less information on its trajectory. As the missile or rocket flies, the systems can better predict where it is likely to land.

Monday’s incident, which ultimately turned out to have been a false alarm, was the first known operational use of the David’s Sling system, which was declared operational last year.

The David’s Sling makes up the middle tier of Israel’s multi-layered anti-missile defense network.

In recent weeks, sirens in northern Israel have been triggered by the military shooting down unmanned aerial vehicles entering Israeli airspace from Syria.

On July 13, the Israeli military used an anti-aircraft Patriot missile to shoot down a Syrian army drone that was flying over the demilitarized zone separating Israel from Syria. Two days earlier, a Syrian military unmanned aerial vehicle penetrated some 10 kilometers (six miles) into Israeli territory before it too was shot down by a Patriot missile. The IDF said it had allowed the drone to fly so deeply into Israeli territory as it was not immediately clear if it belonged to the Russian military.

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