The head of the IDF Northern Command on Sunday warned Iran that it “will not allow” the entrenchment of the Islamic Republic in Syria, while affirming that Israel is uninterested in escalating the situation at this time.
“Iran wants to establish a forward operating base in Syria whose goal is attacking Israel. We will not allow it. We will not allow Israeli citizens to be threatened. We will not allow Iran to threaten the stability of the entire region,” said Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick. “We are not inclined toward escalation, but we have high-level capabilities and we will not hesitate to use them.”
Strick was speaking during a ceremony marking the induction of Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher as the new head of the Northern Command’s 210th “Bashan” Division, which is responsible for guarding the Syrian border and the Golan Heights. Fisher will replace Brig. Gen. Yaniv Assur, who has held the position since 2015.
“That’s how we’ve operated in the past, that’s how we operated yesterday and that’s how we’ll respond to any threat, when needed,” Strick said.
The comments came a day after what the army describes as the most significant Israeli attack on Syrian air defenses since the 1982 First Lebanon War. The Israeli bombardment came after an Iranian drone violated Israeli airspace and then an Israeli F-16 was apparently shot down by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile, injuring the pilot and navigator.
Assur, the outgoing head of the 210th Division who will soon take over as head of the army’s Operations Division, said the skirmish proved what Israeli officials have long been saying: “Hezbollah and Iran are trying to entrench themselves in the area, which could be seen this past Saturday,” he said.
Assur added that the Israeli response “sent a clear message to our enemies: We are determined to defend our sovereignty and respond with force and wisdom to any threat.”
Fisher, the incoming head of the division, said the army had to “prepare itself operationally and in terms of intelligence for the growing threat at our doorstep: the return of the Syrian army and its nation, Iranian forces, Hezbollah and others.
“The additional mission, which we must deal with diligently, is the preparation of the division, especially its many reservist units, for the ultimate test — the test of war,” he said.
Just before 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, the Iranian-made drone, which the IDF says was operated by an Iranian operator, penetrated Israeli airspace from Syria and was shot down. Israeli jets conducted a series of airstrikes in response, during which the F-16 was apparently hit by shrapnel from an anti-aircraft missile and crashed in northern Israel. The pilot was seriously injured, and the navigator sustained light wounds.
Israeli jets then conducted a second round of strikes, specifically targeting Syrian air defense batteries and Iranian military positions in the country, the army said.
According to 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.
Saturday morning’s clash represented the first time that Israel has publicly acknowledged conducting airstrikes against Iranian positions in Syria.
Israeli political and military leaders have long warned that the Islamic Republic is working to establish local air and naval bases from which it can 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,” he 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.”