'It is a dense airspace. Additional caution was needed'

To rule out a Russian link, IDF waited 16 minutes before downing Syrian drone

Army says UAV that penetrated 10 kilometers into Israel was unarmed and likely on reconnaissance mission; jets, helicopters scrambled as a precaution

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

The Israel Defense Forces defended its approximately 15-minute delay in shooting down an apparently unarmed Syrian drone that it said entered Israeli airspace on Wednesday afternoon, saying additional efforts were needed to ensure that the unmanned aerial vehicle was, in fact, flown by an enemy nation.

According to the military, shortly after 3:15 p.m. the drone entered Israeli airspace from Syria through the demilitarized zone between the two countries, after first passing over Jordan. Some 16 minutes later, a Patriot anti-aircraft missile was fired at the UAV, shooting it down over the Sea of Galilee, IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Before targeting the drone, the military also scrambled a number of aircraft as a defensive measure, he said.

F-35 fighter jets fly over Israel in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military quickly recovered the fragments of the drone in an area south of the lake. It did not appear to have been armed and was more likely sent into Israel on a reconnaissance mission, Conricus said.

“Our current understanding was that it was an unarmed Syrian UAV. It appears to have been on an intelligence collection mission,” he said, noting that the military was still investigating the incident.

“It is still not clear why it crossed into Israel,” Conricus said.

Israeli forces search the Sea of Galilee coast for the remains of a drone launched from Syria and intercepted by a Patriot missile on July 11, 2018, near Kibbutz Ha-On, northeastern Israel. (AFP PHOTO / JALAA MAREY)

The IDF decried the infiltration as a violation of Israeli sovereignty. Conricus said the military had not retaliated to the incident, but was not dismissing the possibility.

“As of now there has not been a response to it. We’ll see,” he said.

While the extended amount of time that the drone spent inside Israel indicated that it was most likely deliberately flown across the border, the IDF was still considering the possibility that it entered accidentally, he said.

That the drone was able to travel approximately 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) into Israel before being shot down raised questions about the military’s preparedness and ability to locate and intercept incoming aircraft.

Illustrative: A Patriot missile. (Israel Air Force)

Conricus insisted the military had been in full control of the situation and had monitored the drone since before it entered Israeli territory from the demilitarized zone.

“We wanted to make sure what we were dealing with,” he said.

Until the military was able to determine what steps to take against the drone, the air force called in four fighter jets and two attack helicopters, which would have been able to provide a more immediate response, Conricus said.

Once the optimal conditions existed, we decided to intercept the UAV with one Patriot missile from Safed

According to the spokesman, the delay was due to initial uncertainty over who was operating the drone, specifically if it was being flown by Russia, whose air force has been flying extensive missions over southern Syria to support dictator Bashar Assad’s offensive against two rebel-held provinces in the area.

“It is a dense airspace. Additional caution was needed,” Conricus said.

The IDF officer confirmed that Israel had been in touch directly with Russian forces in order to ensure that it was not their drone.

“We made sure in real time that it was not a Russian UAV,” he said.

“Once the optimal conditions existed, we decided to intercept the UAV with one Patriot missile from Safed,” Conricus said, referring to a city in northern Israel located near the air defense battery.

The drone infiltration took place as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow to stress to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara boarding a plane at Ben Gurion Airport before departing to Moscow, Russia, on July 11, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

It also came days after Syria accused Israel of conducting an airstrike against the T-4 air base in central Syria, which Israeli officials have said is used as a headquarters for Iranian forces in the country.

This timing led several Israeli defense commentators to assume a connection between the events, that the infiltration was a Syrian response to the alleged Israeli airstrike.

On Monday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman toured the Golan Heights, where he threatened Syria with a “strong response” should it violate a delicate decades-old ceasefire agreement in the region. Liberman’s warning came hours after Israeli planes reportedly bombed an air base in central Syria used by Iranian militia fighters in the latest confrontation between the countries.

Wednesday’s incident came just over two weeks after the IDF launched a Patriot interceptor missile at a drone that was heading toward Israeli airspace from Syria, prompting the incoming unmanned aerial vehicle to beat a retreat before it crossed the border.

Conricus said that case was different from Wednesday’s as then it was immediately clear that the drone was not being piloted by Russian forces.

Last year, the Israel Defense Forces used the Patriot missile defense system on at least three occasions in order to shoot down incoming drones from Syria.

In April 2017, a Syrian military drone was shot down by a Patriot missile. In September of that year, the American-made system also intercepted an unmanned aerial vehicle that was flown by the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group. And in November 2017, the military shot down another Syrian military drone that approached Israeli airspace.

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