Israel inflicted serious harm to Syria’s air defenses, said IAF Air Staff Commander Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar on Saturday, after the IDF launched a number of airstrikes on Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria, following the interception on Saturday morning of an unmanned Iranian drone in Israeli airspace.
Bar, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command, 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.
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.
Bar said the Iranian drone remained in Israel’s airspace for a minute and a half before being taken out by a combat helicopter over the city of Beit Shean, near the Jordanian border. He added that the drone was quite advanced and emulated Western technology.
Bar said Israel would study the drone.
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.
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.
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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.
He did not say whether the drone was armed or for reconnaissance, but alleged it “was on a military mission sent by Iranian military forces” from an “Iranian base” in the Palmyra area.
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.
The IDF released video footage early Saturday afternoon of the drone’s destruction over Israeli territory as well as the subsequent IDF strike on its Iranian command vehicle in Syria.
Meanwhile, Iran and Syria said Israeli allegations that an Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli airspace were lies.
A spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said the Syrian response was “a clear warning to Israel. The era of Israeli strikes on Syria is over.” He vowed a “relentless response” to “all further aggression.”
A Syrian statement said Israeli jets targeted a drone base in central Syria whose mission is to gather intelligence on IS in the area. It said the station was hit while drones were on regular missions in the country’s desert in Homs province. The statement said it was “a lie and misleading” to say the drone had entered Israel’s airspace.
In its airstrikes, Israel hit four Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites in Syria. Conricus said the Israeli jets faced between 15 to 20 anti-aircraft missiles fired by SA-5 and SA-17 batteries. All the Israeli jets in those sorties returned home safely.
Israel has taken great care to coordinate all its actions in the area with Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad and maintains a large military presence in the country.
But Russia’s foreign ministry expressed concern over Saturday’s strike and called for restraint.
“We consider it necessary to unconditionally respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries of the region,” it said in a statement. “It is absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian servicemen who are in Syria at the invitation of its legitimate government to assist in the fight against terrorists.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said Israel targeted the edges of a military air base, called T-4, in the Homs desert near Palmyra, where Iranian and Hezbollah forces are based alongside Syrian troops. The Observatory said the raids resulted in casualties, but didn’t specify. 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.