As it happened: Israel, Iran and Syria come to blows in dramatic day of conflict
Yehunda Pinto via AP
Israel said it inflicted the most extensive damage on Syria's air defense system in almost forty years on Saturday, the same day an Iranian drone violated Israeli airspace and a fighter jet was "likely" downed by enemy fire, marking the most dramatic day of escalation on the Israeli-Syria border in recent history.
Israel's political and military leaders bunkered down for emergency talks as Iran threatened to "create hell for the Zionist regime," and Shiite militia Hezbollah crowed that Israel's loss of an F-16 warplane to Syrian anti-aircraft fire represented a "new strategic phase" in the region.
The most direct military confrontation yet between Israel and Iran began just before dawn local time, when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said they detected an Iranian drone and allowed it to enter Israeli airspace for approximately 90 seconds before shooting it down.
Retaliation for the incursion was swift, with eight Israeli F-16s screaming into Syria to carry out retaliatory strikes deep inside the country, including on the vehicle that controlled the drone and an air base said to be bristling with Iranian personnel and weapons.
However the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad responded with a firestorm of anti-aircraft missiles and one warplane crashed in Israel’s Jezreel Valley -- likely due to a rocket strike -- and its pilots ejected. One was seriously injured.
Israel described its response to the jet's downing as "large scale," striking a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets inside Syria.
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus warned that Syria and Iran were "playing with fire", but stressed that his country was not seeking an escalation.
Later, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the attack “brazen.”
“Israel holds Iran and its Syrian hosts responsible for today’s aggression. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereignty and our security,” he said after talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Syria, Iran and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah dismissed as Israeli "lies" the claim that a drone had penetrated into Israel, condemned the retaliatory air strikes and promised a "firm and tough response to any new aggression."
"Iran does not have a military presence in Syria, and has only sent military advisers at the request of the Syrian government," a foreign ministry spokesman said.
The confrontation was the most serious between arch foes Israel and Iran since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011 and also thrust Russia’s role further into the crux of the Middle East.
Despite militarily backing Assad’s government for almost three years, Russia has allowed Israel freedom of movement in Syria’s skies and a statement distributed by Netanyahu’s office after their phone call on Saturday insisted that would continue.
The Kremlin asked all parties in Saturday’s events not to take further action that could trigger a "dangerous escalation."
The US State Department blasted Iran and said the Islamic republic’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.”
Both State the Pentagon gave fulsome backing to “Israel’s inherent right to defend itself.”
Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the UN, called on the Security Council "to condemn this dangerous act and to put an immediate end to Iranian provocations.”
The White House did not respond when asked if they would advance such a motion in the UN’s top forum.
Israel has repeatedly warned allies that it will not tolerate what it says are Iran's attempts at establishing a deep-rooted military infrastructure in Syria.
A number of strikes on targets in Syria have been attributed to Israel. Though Israel rarely confirms such raids, it has admitted to carrying out strikes against convoys of weapons intended for Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"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," the statement in the name of the department's spokeswoman reads.
"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 U.S. 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."
However the report, without citing sources, adds that the possibility of the pilots ejecting because they had been personally injured has not been ruled out.
Of the phone call with Putin, Netanyahu said: "I reiterated to him our right and obligation to defend ourselves against attacks on us from Syrian territory. We agreed that the security coordination between our armies would continue."
"Israel will defend itself against any attack and any attempt to harm our sovereignty," the prime minister said.
"Iran made such an attempt today. It violated our sovereignty, it infiltrated its aircraft into Israeli territory from Syrian territory."
"I want to clarify -- Israel desires peace, but we will continue to defend ourselves resolutely against any attack against us and any attempt by Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria or anywhere else."
"Israel's inherent right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people," the Pentagon said in a statement released on Saturday and quoted by news agencies.
The statement added that Washington wants "greater international resolve in countering Iran's malign activities."
”My heart is with you and your comrades, and I hope that I will meet you soon," Rivlin was quoted by his office as telling the unnamed pilot. "You and the entire squadron have proven that you do not come back until your mission is fulfilled, and I thank God together with the entire nation that you have returned.”
“Today’s developments mean the old equations have categorically ended,” the group said in a statement carried by news agencies.
"This is the beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory."
"We strongly call on all sides involved to show restraint and avoid all acts that could lead to complicating the situation further," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, AFP reported.
"It is absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian soldiers that are in the Syrian Arab Republic on the invitation of the legal government to assist in the fight against terrorism," it added.
- The Iranian drone was in Israeli airspace for about a minute and a half
- It is likely the plane crashed as a result of being hit by anti-aircraft fire
- Israel's relation was the biggest attack on Syria's air defense system since 1982
- Israel's air strikes were 'a complete operational success' despite the loss of an F-16 fighter jet
- It is the first time an Israeli fighter jet has been shot down since 1982
Iran's Revolutionary Guards' Deputy Commander, Hussein Salami, said "We will create hell for the Zionist regime, we are capable of destroying all the bases of the US in the region."
Hezbollah celebrated the attack that brought down an Israeli fighter jet, saying "We destroyed your elite unit."
The Assad camp warned that "Israel's terror will now lead to a harsh response."
"This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty in the last years," IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus said.
IDF added that it is awaiting further conclusions from the government's assessment meeting.
The IDF will act determinately against such severe violations of Israeli sovereignty by Iran and Syria and will continue to act as necessary.— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) February 10, 2018
The IDF is ready for various scenarios and will continue to act according to situation assessments.
Moscow summoned Israel's ambassador after a suspected Israeli strike on a base last year.
Iran and Syria need to know that they will pay heavily for any attack on our sovereignty. Russia is a friend and yet must also understand that we don’t need permission from anyone to defend ourselves.— יאיר לפיד (@yairlapid) February 10, 2018