An Israeli fighter jet has been brought down by anti-aircraft fire during an attack on Iranian targets in Syria. The F-16 crashed in Northern Israel after its two pilots ejected.
The Israeli Defence Force said the F16 came down amid heavy anti-aircraft fire, after it attacked an Iranian facility used to send a drone that had penetrated Israeli airspace earlier this morning.
The IDF said it struck at least a dozen targets after the jet was downed, including three aerial defence batteries and four Iranian targets.
Brigadier General Ronen Manelis, chief spokesman for the IDF, said the downing of the jet — the most serious confrontation between Israel, Syria and Iran since the start of the civil war — was being seen as an attack by Iran in Israeli territory.
“Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” he said.
The IDF said that a drone had penetrated Israeli airspace earlier in the day, and was followed by Israeli jets which went on to attack the ground “components” near Damascus that had controlled the drone.
Syria and its allies denied that an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace. Syrian state news agency SANA’A said Syrian air defences struck back after being targeted by more than one Israeli aircraft.
“The Israeli enemy committed a new aggression on a military base in the central Syria which were blocked by air defence systems which struck more than one plane,” a military source was cited as saying.
Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman has convened a meeting of senior military officials to discuss further responses.
Israeli media said the F16 crashed in northern Israel, and showed footage of white debris from what appeared to be the wreckage of the plane. Both pilots ejected and were taken to a hospital. One of the pilots was seriously wounded.
“The question raised now is could this lead to all-out war in the Northern arena,” said Lt Col Reuven Ben-Shalom, a former air force pilot. “The main players in the region have no interest in this all-out war — Hizbollah, Syria, Iran have no interest in escalating this. It can be contained and then we can move on.
Israel has acknowledged at least 100 strikes on Syrian territory since the country sunk into civil war. It says it has targeted weapons transfer and facilities used by Iran to develop sophisticated weaponry for its most powerful proxy force in the region, the Lebanese Shia group, Hizbollah.
Syria had accused Israeli warplanes of attacking military targets near Damascus earlier this week,
Both Iran and Hizbollah have played a crucial role bolstering President Bashar al-Assad against the rebel forces seeking to oust him.
Israel and its main ally Washington say the Iranian and Hizbollah presence in Syria has also allowed them to expand supply routes and weapons developments on Israel’s border. In recent weeks, US officials have increased their rhetoric against Iran and its presence in Syria.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general who was the director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affair until 2014, said Saturday’s air strikes were focused on blunting Iranian attempts to turn Syria into a place where it could transfer advanced weapons to its surrogates, especially Hizbollah.
Now, by sending the drone into Israeli airspace, “the Iranians are raising the bet,” he said “We’ve lost a plane, but clearly, we are making sure that a message is received on the other side, and the Russians, the Syrians and the Iranians will have to study this [message]. This has wider implications.”
The clash comes amid rising tensions over what Israel says is a growing presence of it enemies Iran and Hizbollah on Syria’s border with Israel.
Regional diplomats following the situation in southern Syria have been warning for weeks of growing potential for a miscalculation or confrontation that could spark an escalation.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a rare visit to the Israeli-Syrian front lines, warning rivals not to test Israel’s resolve.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group with a network of activists across Syria, said that Israeli strikes targeted military sites in the eastern Homs province, as well as in the southwestern suburbs of the capital Damascus. The Observatory said the strikes in Homs struck a military air base that was known to have Iranian and Hizbollah forces.