|JFNA’s Israel office has prepared this summary of the significant escalation in the tensions between Israel and Iranian and Syrian forces operating in Syria that took place over Shabbat. In a major incident, one Israeli fighter jet was downed (the first time this has occurred in over a decade), although thankfully the pilot ejected, and while badly injured, he survived and is currently recovering in Haifa’s Rambam Hospital. Israel’s top government and military leadership are meeting to discuss the emergency situation.
Following months of tension between Israel and the growing Iranian presence in Syria, the major escalation began early on Saturday morning. At 4am, an Iranian UAV (drone) took off from the T4 Airbase in Syria, heading for Israel. Air raid sirens were sounded in the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley. One and a half minutes after the drone entered Israeli airspace, an Israeli Apache helicopter intercepted and shot it down near the Israeli town of Bet She’an.
The IDF has stated that the UAV in yesterday’s attack was on a military mission, with a specific intended target, but it is not yet releasing information about the nature of that target.
A short time after the attempted attack, a number of Israeli jets took off, intending to strike the UAV’s launch site. However, it seems that the initial Iranian/ Syrian infiltration attempt could have been a ploy to bait Israeli jets. As soon as the Israeli fleet began its mission, the jets were met by massive Syrian anti-aircraft fire. One Israeli F-16 pilot realized that a Syrian missile had locked onto his aircraft, and as a result, he and his co-pilot performed an emergency ejection. As mentioned, one of the pilots was seriously hurt, and the other suffered minor injuries. The jet crashed in the Galilee region.
The downing of the plane marked the first time that Israel has lost an aircraft in a combat situation since 2006, when an Israeli Sikorsky CH-53 helicopter was shot down over Lebanon. It was the first Israeli jet to crash in combat since an F-4 Phantom II piloted by Yishai Aviram and Ron Arad came down in southern Lebanon in 1986.
After the Israeli plane was downed, Israel carried out another wave of strikes, hitting 12 targets in Syria, including three Syrian air defense batteries and four Iranian targets. The eight Israeli jets in this second wave were met again by anti-aircraft fire, leading to another round of air-raid sirens across the Golan Heights. According to the IDF Spokesperson, “Iran and Syria are playing with fire. The results of our strikes are not yet fully known to them, and they may be surprised when they discover what we targeted."
Israel has been warning the international community for months that it will not tolerate any Iranian presence in Syria that threatens the Jewish state. The Israeli government has been in close contact with both the United States and Russia over the issue; and the militaries of these two countries- the major powers in Syria – have a close understanding and appreciation of Israel’s security concerns. Prime Minister Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly, including just two weeks ago, to discuss the problems of the Iranian presence in Syria. As a result of Israel’s concerns, in recent months the country has struck any facility in Syria that it deemed to pose a serious threat to the Jewish state. Israel rarely officially comments on military activity in Syria but has publicly admitted to having struck over 100 convoys of Iranian-backed Hezbolla arms shipments and other targets in Syria in recent times. See here for an excellent background piece on the escalation in the north, written on Friday, before yesterday's escalation.
Israeli Air Force Air Staff Commander Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the IAF’s second-in-command, said Saturday’s response was “the biggest and most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses since Operation Peace for the Galilee” which took place in in 1982. According to the IDF, while Saturday’s 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 Iranian activity in the country.”
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 promised a “relentless response” to “all further aggression.”
Hezbollah said that the downing of the Israeli jet marks the "start of a new strategic phase. Yesterday's developments mean the old equations have categorically ended.”
In response, the IDF reiterated that it “will continue to operate against attempts to infiltrate Israeli airspace and will act with determination to prevent any violations of Israel's sovereignty. The IDF is prepared for a variety of scenarios and will continue to act as necessary.” The army has also stressed that it maintains full freedom of movement in Syria. The IDF said that “this weekend’s events demonstrate what could occur across the entire region if the Iranian efforts to support and export terror are not addressed.”
Following Saturday’s escalation, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and other world leaders. Netanyahu stated, "I have been warning for some time about the dangers of Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. Iran seeks to use Syrian territory to attack Israel for its professed goal of destroying Israel. Yesterday morning Iran brazenly violated Israel’s sovereignty. They dispatched an Iranian drone from Syrian territory into Israel. And this demonstrates that our warnings were 100% correct. Israel holds Iran and its Syrian hosts responsible for yesterday’s aggression. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereignty and our security."
JFNA’s Israel office has refreshed emergency protocols and stands ready to respond on behalf of the Federation system should the need arise.
Jerry Silverman, President & CEO
The Jewish Federations of North America