IDF, Syrian rebels identify regime targets hit in reprisal strikes

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 6 pro-regime fighters killed, others critically wounded in IAF strikes that hit Syrian, Iranian positions

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The mobile command center from which Israel says an Iranian operator flew a drone from Syria into Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
The mobile command center from which Israel says an Iranian operator flew a drone from Syria into Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli army identified some of the targets of the retaliatory airstrikes it conducted in Syria after an Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli airspace the day before, while Syrian rebel forces provided details on the rest.

The targets included anti-aircraft missile batteries and an anti-missile defense system near Damascus and a mobile command center near Palmyra, according to the military.

Six pro-regime fighters were killed in the raids, according to a monitor.

At approximately 4:25 a.m. on Saturday, an Iranian drone from Syria entered Israeli territory from Jordan and was shot down by an Apache attack helicopter near the northern Israeli city of Beit Shean, according to the army.

Israel said the drone infiltration was a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” and warned of further action against unprecedented Iranian “aggression.”

In response, the Israeli Air Force quickly conducted a series of reprisal strikes in Syria.

One F-16 fighter jet was apparently hit while flying over Syria during the raid, but managed to return to Israel, where its two pilots bailed out of the plane, which crashed into a field in the Jezreel Valley, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus. One of the airmen was severely injured, while the second was lightly wounded.

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

Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the deputy head of the IAF, said the Israeli planes faced a massive barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft fire.

The IDF said it was still investigating the exact cause of the F-16 crash, but was working under the assumption that it was due to a Syrian anti-aircraft missile.

In response to the apparent downing of the F-16, the Israeli military conducted another round of strikes, specifically targeting Syrian air defense systems. Then too, Israeli pilots faced significant Syrian anti-aircraft fire, set off multiple warning sirens in northern Israel, sending residents into bomb shelters.

A picture taken on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of a Syrian missile that landed in northern Israel. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

This was for good reason, as Syrian anti-aircraft missile debris rained down across the region, in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.

In total, at least four different types of Russian-made air defense systems were reportedly used by Syria in its counterattack: the SA-5, SA-17, SA-6 and SA-3.

With a map distributed late Saturday night, the IDF specifically identified the long-range SA-5 and medium-range SA-17 anti-aircraft missile batteries as targets of its strikes, along with a long-range SA-2 missile defense system, all of which had been deployed around Damascus.

The IDF added that it bombed “four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.”

This included a mobile command center on the T-4 military air base outside the city of Palmyra, from which an Iranian operator allegedly flew the drone that entered Israeli territory, according to the IDF.

According to the rebel forces, both Syrian and Iranian troops were killed in the IAF strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the civil war, said the raids killed six pro-regime fighters, but didn’t specify their nationality.

“The death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation,” the Observatory said Saturday.

Bar said the 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.

A Syrian opposition commander supplied The Times of Israel with the rebels’ own list of 12 sites targeted in the IAF strikes on Saturday.

According to the rebels, the T-4 airfield was taken out of commission by the strike, at least temporarily.

In the Damascus area, military sites were also targeted in al-Mazza, al-Dimas, Madaya, Sarghaya, the al-Manea mountains, the Abu Thaaleb hills, along with a base belonging to the Syrian army’s 104th airborne division, northwest of the capital.

An air defense base in the Qalamoun mountains, along the Syrian-Lebanese border, was also hit, according to the rebels.

In addition, three military bases north of the city of Daraa were struck by Israeli munitions, the opposition commander said.

The Tiyas, or T-4, Air Base, outside of the Syrian city of Palmyra, which Israel claims is being operated by Iran and its Quds Force. (Screen capture/Wikimapia)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed Israel targeted the edges of the T-4 military air base in the Homs desert near Palmyra, where Iranian and Hezbollah forces are based alongside Syrian troops.

It also said Israeli raids targeted areas in southwestern Damascus, bordering the southern provinces. This was followed by raids on Syrian government posts along the Damascus-Beirut road, close to the border between Syria and Lebanon.

In one positive development, Syrians in rebel-held areas of the country noted on social media that following the Israeli strikes, there were no bombing raids conducted by the Syrian air force for the rest of the day.

Saturday’s aerial exchanges were the first public direct clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria.

Israeli political and military leaders have long warned that the Islamic Republic 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.

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

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.”

The prime minister added, “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.”

Khaled Abu Toameh, TOI staff and Agencies contributed to this report.

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