Saturday’s escalation marks the first time in more than a decade that an Israeli jet has been lost during combat.
With the first downing of an Israeli aircraft in over a decade, the rules of the game have changed on the northern border.
On Saturday morning, an Iranian drone took off from the Tiyas Military Air Base, aka the T4 Air Base, deep in the Syrian province of Homs. The drone was spotted by Israel, and residents across the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley were woken by air raid sirens that sounded when an Israel Air Force Apache attack helicopter intercepted the unmanned aerial vehicle near Beit She’an.
In response, Israeli jets took off to strike the drone’s launch site, and were met by massive Syrian antiaircraft fire. The two crew members of one of the Israeli F-16s saw that one missile had locked onto their aircraft, and they ejected from the jet, which crashed near Kibbutz Harduf in the Lower Galilee.
The crew, one of whom was in severe condition with abdominal injuries, were evacuated to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center.
The incident was viewed as a significant event by the IDF, which warned that the Iranians and Syrians were “playing with fire.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman held consultations at the Kirya military headquarters with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and other top military brass and intelligence officers.
The incident in itself is a serious, significant event and raises the question of whether the drone was used as bait by the Iranians to drag Israeli jets into Syria, whose air defenses were lying in wait.
It was not the first time that an Iranian drone has been brought down by Israel, with two Iranian-built, Hezbollah-operated drones downed over northern Israel in September and November.
It was also not the first time that Israeli jets were targeted by Syrian air defenses (which are largely Russian, with SA-2s, SA-5s, and SA-6s as well as the more sophisticated tactical surface-to-air missiles such as the SA-17s and SA-22 systems). Since the Russians entered the bloody conflict in 2015, the Syrian regime has become more brazen in its responses to Israeli strikes.
In September 2016, Israeli jets that had carried out retaliatory strikes in Syria were targeted with surface-to-air missiles as they returned to base. No planes were lost.
In March of last year, Israel used its Arrow advanced missile defense system for the first time in a combat situation, when Israeli jets operating near Palmyra were targeted. All planes landed safely but it was, until now, without a doubt the most serious incident between Israel and Syria since the outbreak of the disastrous civil war in 2011.
Saturday marked the first time that Israel lost an aircraft in a combat situation since 2006, when an Israel Air Force Yasur (Sikorsky CH-53) helicopter was shot down over Lebanon. The plane that crashed on Saturday 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. Aviram was brought back to Israel in a daring rescue attempt, but Arad is still missing.
After Saturday’s crash, the air force carried out another wave of strikes, hitting 12 targets in Syria, including three Syrian SA-5 and SA-17 air defense batteries and four Iranian targets. The eight Israeli jets were met again by antiaircraft fire, setting off air raid sirens across the Golan Heights.
According to IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis, between 15 and 20 antiaircraft missiles were fired at Israeli jets, with several falling in open areas in the north of the country.
“THE IRANIANS are raising the stakes of the bet,” Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry and former head of the IDF’s Intelligence Research and Assessment Division, said in a conference call held by the Israel Project on Saturday.
“Since the Iranians were facing Israeli efforts to prevent them from having what they want, they are now trying to do things they haven’t done before,” said Kuperwasser, who is also a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He added that Tehran is now, as we saw on Saturday, engaged in attempts “to strike and attack inside Israel using unmanned aerial vehicles.”
Tensions on the northern border have been rising in recent months as Iran entrenches itself deeper in war-torn Syria, growing in strength over the border.
Netanyahu recently visited Moscow to reiterate Jerusalem’s concerns about the growing Iranian hegemony in the region, and the risk it poses for escalation and instability.
Russia views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, but Saturday’s events mean the message Israel passed on via Moscow was either not received or was ignored by the Islamic Republic, which is investing serious efforts in how Syria will look once the disastrous civil war ends.
According to Kuperwasser, Moscow is “being used by the Iranians,” securing Assad regime bases while Tehran continues to strengthen its hold in Syria.
“Russia is, in a way, becoming the useful idiot of the Iranians,” he said. “We have to be careful about what Syria will look like when it is controlled by Iran. We got a taste of it this morning,” Kuperwasser said.