Israel’s military said that one of its F-16 fighter jets crashed early Saturday in northern Israel after coming under heavy Syrian antiaircraft fire after it had seized an Iranian drone that penetrated Israeli airspace from Syria.
The events appeared to be Israel’s first direct engagement with Iranian forces across the increasingly volatile boundary in the Golan Heights, risking a new escalation in Syria’s multifaceted seven-year war in the area.
Early assessments suggested that the Israeli F-16 had been hit by Syrian antiaircraft fire, according to a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, though he added that nothing had been officially confirmed.
The Israeli military said two pilots had bailed from the downed aircraft “as per procedure.” One pilot was severely injured as a result of “an emergency evacuation,” it said.
Israel said it had carried out a “large scale attack” against the Syrian Aerial Defense System and Iranian targets in Syria, presumably in response to the downing of the F-16. The military later said that the jet had crashed after the formation it was flying in was targeted by Syrian ground antiaircraft fire.
This appeared to be the first time in decades, probably since the early 1980s, that an Israeli jet was downed under enemy fire. In the past, Syria has claimed , falsely, that it had shot down Israeli aircraft.
The jet crash represented a severe blow to Israel’s prestige and could mark a major change after years in which Israel has acted against targets in Syria with relative impunity.
The Israeli military said in statement that it “sees the Iranian attack and the Syrian response as a severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” and added that it was “fully prepared for further action.”
After the initial assault on the drone launching facilities, Israel said later Saturday that it had attacked 12 additional targets, including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets “that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.”
Iran, along with Russia — which had helped propped up the government of President Bashar al- Assad in Syria — on Saturday denied any role in shooting down the Israeli jet.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was seriously concerned by the latest developments in Syria and called for restraint on all sides. Moscow also said it was “unacceptable’ to endanger the lives of Russian soldiers in Syria, according to news reports.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry denied the drone had strayed into Israeli airspace and rejected as “ridiculous” reports that Israel had intercepted a drone launched from Syria on Saturday, according to Iranian state TV.
“Reports of downing an Iranian drone flying over Israel and also Iran’s involvement in attacking an Israeli jet are so ridiculous,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, was quoted as saying, “Iran only provides military advice to Syria.”
Syrian Army officials, however, said the drone had been carrying out a routine mission against the Islamic State — known as ISIS or ISIL — over Syrian airspace, according to the news site Al-Manar. Syria’s Allies Command said in a statement:
“The Command of Syria’s Allies dismissed such claims, stressing that the drone which the Zionist regime was talking about was operating over the Syrian airspace. Our drone took off from Tifur Airport and was carrying out a normal anti-ISIL mission over Syrian Badiyah.”
The statement added, referring to the downing of the Israeli F-16, “We hail the brave retaliation of Damascus.”
Later Saturday morning, clashes appeared to be continuing. There were new Israeli airstrikes around the capital, Damascus, according to Syrian state media and Damascus residents.
The sounds of explosions could be heard near Kiswa and Jdeidet Artouz, suburbs to the south and to the west of Damascus, residents said. There was also what sounded like the launch of rockets or missiles from Mezze air base, located in Damascus. .
Syrian state television said the Syrian military’s antiaircraft guns were responding to Israeli airstrikes.
Israel has long warned about the risk of conflict as a result of Iranian-backed forces, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah militia, digging in in Syrian territory and approaching the boundary with the Israeli-held portion of the Golan Heights. Israel has been lobbying world powers to distance these forces from the border areas.
Israel seized the strategic plateau from Syria in the 1967 war and fought off an invasion there in 1973. Though the area remained quiet for decades, it has become a growing flash point throughout Syria’s war.
Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria during the war, largely targeting what it says are advanced weapons stores or convoys taking weapons to Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, but sometimes reportedly hitting Syrian government facilities involved in weapons development.
Syria’s government has always said that it would respond at a proper time and place, and it has occasionally returned fire with antiaircraft guns and missiles.
The Israeli military said that a combat helicopter intercepted the Iranian drone before dawn on Saturday. The drone was believed to have originated from an airfield near Palmyra, Syria.
“The aircraft was identified by the Aerial Defense Systems at an early phase and was under surveillance until the interception,” the military said, adding that it “attacked the Iranian aircraft’s launch components in Syrian territory.”
Later Saturday, air-raid sirens sounded again in the Israeli-held Golan Heights and in the Galilee area of northern Israel, though there were no immediate reports of incoming fire.
The clash showed the extent to which Syria has become a battlefield between Israel and Iran, among many other intersecting conflicts involving foreign combatants.
Two days ago, United States forces struck pro-government forces that, according to reports, included some Russian military contractors, as well as Iran-backed Syrian fighters.
In addition, Turkey is attacking United States-backed Kurds and threatening to escalate that conflict, possibly risking conflict between two NATO allies.
By: Isabel Kershner