In the early hours of Saturday morning, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intercepted a an Iranian drone that crossed into Israel’s airspace from Syria– the IDF videotaped the intercept and subsequent destruction of the drone to prevent Iran from claiming it was a propaganda story.
In response, Israel scrambled F-16’s to take out what it called the Iranian “command and control” center that launched the drone at a Syrian air base near Palmyra. One of the F-16 fighters crashed in northern Israel after coming under heavy Syrian antiaircraft fire during it’s return home–believed to be the first Israeli plane lost to enemy fire for decades. Syria has claimed previously to have shot down Israeli aircraft, but according to the IDF, the last time an Israeli jet was downed due to enemy fire appears was in the early 1980s.
Rescue teams made it to the crash site in time to save the pilots–both ejected, one was severely injured– but Israel would respond again, this time with a range of attacks on a dozen or more Iranian targets inside Syrian’s borders. An IDF press release said it hit eight Syrian targets, including three aerial defense batteries, and four Iranian positions that it characterized as “part of Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.”
The Lebanese Shiite based terrorist group Hezbollah said on Saturday that the downing of the Israeli F-16 jet by the Syrian Army marked the “start of a new strategic phase.” They went on to say they intend to limit Israeli exploitation of Syrian airspace.
Israel does not seem deterred, in fact, they seem emboldened–pointing out that this was the first strike they’ve conducted on Syrian soil in broad daylight. The second sortie lost no aircraft despite taking heavy anti-aircraft fire. Most notable is the heave damage the Israeli military was able to inflict on Iranian locations, given the Iranians seemed to believe Israel was unaware of them. One U.S. Intelligence official said “This was IDF’s way of saying to Iran, we know more than you think we do and we are not afraid to do something with that knowledge if you force our hand.”
On the other hand, Syria appeared to chalk up the downing of the F-16 as a win. Government supporters celebrated in the streets of Damascus, handing out candy and hailing Assad and the army.
To say the entire conflict is volatile is an understatement with so many players on the board. Iran and Russia have both been propping up the Assad regime in Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Moscow with Vladimir Putin in late January to discuss the need for security cooperation and deconfliction in the region. The two spoke about this latest incident on Saturday and agreed to continue communication– but Putin’s Foreign Ministry stressed the need for all sides to show restraint while Netanyahu made it clear that Israel would act “according to need.”
The U.S. military weighed in as well. Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Adrian J. Rankine-Galloway, said “We share the concerns of many throughout the region that Iran’s destabilizing activities threaten international peace and security, and we seek greater international resolve in countering Iran’s malign activities.”
Iran maintains the drone never crossed over into Israeli airspace, calling the idea of it “laughable.” Syria claims the drone was simply on a routine mission against the Islamic State. Many watchers in the region fail to see why the Iranians would purposefully draw the Israelis into a conflict they are currently making progress in, especially since the Israeli’s capability to completely derail the Russian and Iranian operations in the region isn’t really in question.
A former chief of Israeli military intelligence put it this way “Israel has the capability to destroy the Russian and Iranian project to save the Assad regime.” He went on to say “Syria, Iran and Russia would appear to have little interest now in getting into a full-blown conflict with Israel.”
So per the norm, neither side agrees on what actually happened to incite the response. Regardless, the response was quick and decisive on the part of the IDF.
**Featured image courtesy of AP