Israel carries out 'large-scale attack' in Syria after Israeli jet crashes under anti-aircraft fire
JERUSALEM - Israel's army said it had launched a "large-scale attack" inside Syria on Saturday after one of its jets was downed under Syrian anti-aircraft fire, in a series of cross-border incidents that threatened to destabilize the volatile region between the two countries.
Israel says the situation started with an Iranian drone crossing into its territory from Syria at around 4:30 a.m. It was shot down by an Israeli attack helicopter.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahran Qasemi, however, described the Israeli claim as "ridiculous."
Israel later dispatched eight fighter jets to bomb the T4 military base near the Syrian city of Palmyra, from where it says the drone was dispatched and controlled. Syria responded with "substantial Syrian anti-aircraft fire" under which two Israeli pilots ejected from their F-16, which crashed inside Israel, according to the Israeli military. One of the pilots was severely injured, it said.
"The Syrians are playing with fire that they are allowing the Iranians to attack Israel from their soil," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. "The IDF is ready and capable to inflict a heavy price on anyone that attacks us. This is a severe attack and a breach of Israeli sovereignty perpetrated by Iran."
After its fighter jet crashed, Israel responded by targeting 12 military sites in Syria - eight Syrian and four that it said were Iranian. The stated targets included three air defense batteries and a base belonging to the Syrian army's 4th Division on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.
Qasemi said that the Syrian government had the right to defend itself "against any foreign aggression" in reference to the Israeli jet being targeted.
The Israeli military said it was investigating whether its jet was hit directly.
The Syrian state news agency said more than one plane was hit, describing the bombing of the base as a "new Israeli aggression."
A military alliance backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that any other incursion by Israel would be met with "serious and fierce" retaliation.
Russia, which has troops based at T4 military base, reacted with anger.
"The creation of any threat to the lives and safety of Russian military servicemen currently in Syria on the invitation of its lawful government to help fight terrorists is absolutely unacceptable," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Israel has looked on with alarm as its arch-enemy Iran has extended its reach in the region during conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Along with its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah it has provided military support for Assad during the country's nearly seven-year-long civil war, while backing Shiite militia forces in Iraq in their fight against the Islamic State.
In an attempt to contain Iran and its proxies, Israel has regularly carried out airstrikes inside Syria, though it has in the past refrained from acknowledging its responsibility for specific bombings. Syria's response in the past has been limited, but it appeared to be sending a message on Saturday that it would not remain that way.
"Israelis must realize that they no longer have superiority in the skies nor on the ground," Fares Shehabi, a member of the Syrian parliament for Aleppo tweeted. He said that Syria fired more than 24 surface-to-air missiles at Israeli jets. "Much more will be fired in the future at Israeli airports if Israel continues its aggressions."
Conricus, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, confirmed that between 15 and 20 surface-to-air missiles were launched by Syria as Israel launched the second round of attacks. The pro-Syrian military alliance, which includes Hezbollah and Iran, released a statement describing the Israeli claim that an Iranian drone had entered its airspace as a "lie and fabrication."
But Conricus said Israel was in possession of the remains of the drone and that Israeli officials were certain was Iranian. It did not cross randomly but was "on a mission" he said, though he declined to give more details or comment on whether the drone was armed.
Civilians on both sides of the border were awoken to the military exchange.
"We can hear the sounds of the explosions," said one Damascus resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the sound of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles is louder than usual. Air raid sirens were triggered in residential areas on Israel's northern border.
Shlomo Mishal, 55, from Beit Shean in northern Israel, said that he was woken by the sirens at around 4:30 a.m.
"We heard a loud bang but we did not know what was going on and ran downstairs to the shelter, a safe room in our home," he said.
Mishal said that his friends and neighbors in the town started sharing text messages and social media posts, with rumors flying around about what had happened, until 8 a.m. when the news stations gave details of the Iranian drone being shot down.
"The fact that this happened not far from our home, the fact there was an Iranian drone overhead is not nice and makes us uncomfortable," he said.
Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, refused to comment. He was speaking on the sidelines of a conference marking the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iran's Tasnim news agency reported. Salami added: "We have no military presence in Syria."
The Israeli military said it was not looking to escalate the situation but was ready for various scenarios. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding an emergency meeting with his Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at Israel's military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Saturday morning.
Members of Israel's security cabinet, including Netanyahu, toured the Golan Heights on Tuesday and were briefed by the general chief of staff of the army Gadi Eizenkot and other top military commanders.
Author information: Loveday Morris is our Jerusalem bureau chief. Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. The Washington Post's Louisa Loveluck in Beirut, Erin Cunningham in Istanbul and Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.