Iran and Syria are playing with fire in northern Israel

While we were sleeping on Friday night an Iranian drone invaded Israeli airspace. Israel shot the drone down and then went on the attack against Iranian air positions in Syria. The Syrians opened massive anti-aircraft fire against Israeli jets, causing one of them to crash. Thank G-d the Israeli pilots skillful managed to bring their aircraft back to Israel before ejecting. Both pilots were injured but are recovering in hospital.

Here is a quick summary of today’s events:

From the Jerusalem Post:

An Iranian drone, which was launched from a Syrian base in the Homs desert, was identified approaching Israeli airspace by the IDF at around 4 a.m. on Saturday, setting off alarms across the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley.

The drone entered Israel via Jordanian airspace, flying for a minute and a half before it was intercepted by an Israel Air Force Apache helicopter near the town of Beit She’an.

Brig.-Gen. Tomer Bar, chief of the IAF Staff, the air force’s second in command, said the drone was an advanced model with a low electromagnetic signature that Israel had never intercepted before.

“We waited for it to cross into our territory,” he said, stressing that it was important for Israel “to get our hands on the drone.”
According to IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis, while the drone was Iranian and navigated by Iranian operators, Syria’s choice to fire its air defenses against Israeli jets shows that it has chosen to interfere in Israel’s fight against the Islamic Republic’s activity in the country.

Watch the drone being spotted, targeted and shot down by the IAF:

In response, Israeli aircraft targeted the drone’s launch site deep inside Syria, in a “complicated surgical strike,” in the face of heavy antiaircraft missile fire.

“It was the most extensive Syrian antiaircraft attack since 1982,” Bar said, stressing that, nonetheless, “we consider this to be a fully successful operation. Israel’s air superiority was not affected today.”

Two Israeli crew members were wounded after ejecting from their F-16I when they recognized that one of the enemy missiles had locked onto their jet, which then crashed near the entrance to Kibbutz Harduf in the Beit Netofa Valley in the Lower Galilee. The pilots also parachuted inside Israel and were evacuated to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. The military later cleared for release that one of the crew members was severely wounded while the other one was slightly injured.

A picture taken at the northern Israeli Kibbutz Harduf on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

While it is believed that the F-16 was hit by a Syrian surface-to-air missile, the entire incident is under investigation.

It was the first time that Israel lost an aircraft in a combat situation since 2006, when an Israeli Yasur (Sikorsky CH-53) helicopter was shot down over Lebanon, killing the entire five-person crew, including the first female flight mechanic in Israel’s heavy-transport helicopter fleet.

Following the crash of the jet, Israel carried out a large-scale attack against 12 targets in Syria, including three Syrian SA-5 and SA-17 air defense batteries and four other Iranian military targets.

According to Syrian media reports, Israel struck the Abu Al-Thaaleb Air Base near the town of Kiswah, which is home to Syria’s First Armored Division and part of the Islamic Republic’s buildup in Syria.

The Israeli attack was again met with antiaircraft fire, which triggered air raid sirens on the Golan Heights and in the Upper Galilee. According to Manelis, several enemy missiles hit open areas in northern Israel.

“Iran and Syria are playing with fire,” he said. “The results of our strikes are not yet fully known to them [Iran], and they may be surprised when they discover what we targeted.”

Here is the IDF Spokesman’s announcement Twitter:

Thank G-d the condition of one of the downed pilots has improved:

The condition of a seriously wounded Israeli pilot began to improve Saturday, after he underwent surgery for injuries he sustained while ejecting from his plane over northern Israel, in the midst of a severe confrontation between Israel, Syria, and Iran. The F-16 jet he was piloting took part in Israeli airstrikes in response to an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria in the early morning hours on Saturday.

Dr. Rafi Beyar, the head of Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, said the pilot was in stable condition after suffering injuries to his chest and abdomen. He said the pilot, who was still unconscious and connected to a respirator, also required blood transfusions.

Beyar said a second pilot, who was lightly injured while abandoning the aircraft, was set to be released from the hospital on Sunday.

According to unconfirmed reports, Iran was using the Syrian base, which Israel attacked, as its own:

Iranian and Quds forces have been working for a while from the Syrian T4 air force base near Palmyra, Syria, supported by Syrian armed forces and with the approval of the Syrian government.

IAF attacks Syrian base (IDF spokesperson)

An unconfirmed report said that in the past several months, Iran has began using the base as if it were its own, and transferring weapons to allies in an attempt to build up its strength against Israel.

These Iranian activities are disguised as support against global jihad, but the events of the past day have proven that their true purpose is direct and violent actions against Israel.

Iran’s actions have proven correct all of Israel’s warnings against allowing Iran’s establishment in Syria. There was an intentional attack, and Israel was forced to respond, first to the threat on her territory, and later to those who acted against it in enmity from Syrian soil.

Following the hostilities, Binyamin Netanyahu asserted that Israel will not allow an Iranian entrenchment in Syria:

Israel will continue to defend itself, including by acting against Iranian efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday evening, at the end of a day that saw a dramatic escalation in Iranian-Israeli hostilities on Israel’s northern border, including the apparent downing of an Israeli fighter jet.

“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,” Netanyahu said in a filmed statement from the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, adding that Israel “holds Iran and its Syrian hosts responsible for today’s aggression.”

Netanyahu also said that he spoke with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, noting that Israeli-Russian military coordination vis-a-vis Syria will continue.

“I want to clarify: Israel seeks peace but we will continue to defend ourselves resolutely against any attack against us and against any attempt by Iran to establish itself militarily against us in Syria or anywhere else,” Netanyahu said.

“Our policy is absolutely clear: Israel will defend itself against any attack and any attempt to harm our sovereignty,” he said. “Iran made such an attempt today. It brazenly violated our sovereignty, it infiltrated its aircraft into Israeli territory from Syrian territory,” he said, referring to an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle.

“This is both our right and our duty and we will continue to make use of it as necessary. Let no one make a mistake,” Netanyahu said.

The second in command of the Israeli Air Force claimed that we had done serious damage to Syria’s air defenses:

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.

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.

Refreshingly, after 8 years of Obama-speak and demanding that Israel “exercise restraint”, President Trump’s administration backed Israel’s right to self-defense:

In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway said, “The [US] Department of Defense did not participate in this military operation.”

“Israel is our closest security partner in the region and we fully support Israel’s inherent right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people.

“We share the concerns of many throughout the region that Iran’s destabilizing activities that threaten international peace and security, and we seek greater international resolve in countering Iran’s malign activities.”

Meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “The United States is deeply concerned about today’s escalation of violence over Israel’s border and strongly supports Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself.”

“Iran’s calculated escalation of threat, and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the region – from Yemen to Lebanon – at risk.

“The US continues to push back on the totality of Iran’s malign activities in the region and calls for an end to Iranian behavior that threatens peace and stability.”

Unfortunately the Russians were not so accommodating:

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.

As for the implications of this hostile exchange, the Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz thinks this is the opening salvo of the war against Iran:

his was long in the making. Years ago, the Iranians came to the rescue of Bashar Assad in Syria and, together with Russia, ensured his survival. The problem is that they haven’t left. On the contrary – even though Assad is today in control of the majority of Syria, Iran is staying put and trying to establish an even greater presence within the country. On Saturday, we saw how determined it is to do just that.

It is too early to tell what lesson Iran has learned from the clash on Saturday. On the one hand, it succeeded in infiltrating a drone into Israel, even though it was ultimately intercepted. Its ally Syria succeeded in shooting down an Israeli fighter jet. On the other hand, Israel carried out its most widespread bombings in Syria since it destroyed almost all of Syria’s air defenses in 1982.
Israel’s retaliation was important for two reasons – it needed to neutralize the Syrian batteries that were used to down the F-16, but also to exact a price from Iran by bombing the control center used to operate the drone as well as other Iranian targets in Syria – the nature of which we will likely learn over the coming days.

The question will be whether Israel succeeded in boosting its deterrence. That depends on what Iran decides to do next. Will it keep on building its presence in Syria? Will it attempt another violation of Israel’s sovereignty down the road?

While the downing of a fighter jet is a heavy blow to Israeli morale, it was not totally unexpected and needs to be viewed through the wider context of what has been going on for the last five years. Israel has carried out more than 100 strikes in Syria, and in war there are always wins and losses. The fact that a plane hasn’t been shot down until now is the real story and speaks volumes of the IAF’s superior capabilities.

Finally, Israel needs to be concerned by Russia’s response to the events on Saturday. In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling for restraint and for all sides to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”

On the surface, it seems like Russia is taking Iran and Syria’s side and not Israel’s, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s best efforts to win over Vladimir Putin and his countless meetings with the Russian president. Beyond the ministry statement’s rhetorical significance, it could have practical consequences if Russia decides to deny Israel operational freedom over Syria in the future.

Israel will have to tread carefully and will not have a lot of choice but to accept Moscow’s directives. While Russia has allowed Iran to establish a presence in Syria it has – until now – prevented it from setting up large bases or a presence right along the border with Israel on the Golan Heights.

That could all still happen – and will depend on what Russia’s interests will be when it comes to the future of Syria and the wider Middle East.

Let us hope that cooler heads prevail in Syria, Iran and Russia. No one in Israel is looking for an escalation, but we will defend ourselves.

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