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Mattis: Israel Doesn't 'Have to Wait Until Their Citizens are Dying Under Attack' to Strike Iran Targets

Defense Secretary James Mattis said Israel exercised its "absolute right to defend itself" in shooting down an Iranian drone that entered the Jewish State's airspace from Syria.

The UAV entry into Israeli airspace sparked a response from the Israeli Defense Forces that included striking a dozen Iranian targets in Syria just over an hour later.

The drone was reportedly a copy of an American model, the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel UAV, with an 85-foot wingspan that was captured by Iran in December 2011. IDF Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the drone "was detected long before crossing Israeli territory." It was in Israeli airspace for about a minute and a half before being shot down by an Israeli Air Force Apache attack helicopter.

That was at 4:25 a.m. At 5:34 a.m., IAF jets launched an assault against Iranian targets in Syria including three aerial defense batteries. Iran fired anti-aircraft missiles at the Israeli jet, striking one. Two pilots ejected and landed in Israeli territory; one suffered serious injuries.

At 8:45 a.m., the IDF launched a "large-scale attack" against "the Syrian aerial defense array and additional Iranian targets in Syria." Sirens sounded in northern Israel because of the missiles fired at Israeli jets, and the attack was over just before 9 a.m.

En route to Rome on Sunday for an anti-ISIS conference, Mattis said the U.S. had no involvement in the operation "on a military basis."

"It is interesting that everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it. Whether it be in Yemen or Beirut, or in Syria, in Iraq, you always find Iran engaged," he added.

"Now in two places, I can say, well, it just happened to fall out that way. In three places, it's starting to look like there's something to it. And I think the further you are from there, the easier it is to dismiss this as some sort of, you know, Washington, D.C., chicanery or something. If you live in the region, there's no doubt what Iran is doing."

Mattis continued: "If you're in Bahrain, and the police there have captured explosives and that sort of thing, clearly from Iran; if you're picking up debris in Saudi Arabia of Iranian missiles; or you've got explosive boats, remote-controlled boats, out in the Red Sea, you can see where Iran is either producing the wherewithal for the fight or actually leading the fight, in some case."

The Defense secretary noted that everyone is "aware of when the Quds Force leadership is in Iraq or in Syria."

"So when Syria, which has made no -- has not hidden at all, made no excuse for what they're doing alongside Iran, when they are providing throughput for Iran to give weapons, including more sophisticated weapons, to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israel has an absolute right to defend themselves," Mattis said. "They don't have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue."

The White House said in a brief statement Saturday, "Israel is a staunch ally of the United States, and we support its right to defend itself from the Iranian-backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria. We call on Iran and its allies to cease provocative actions and work toward regional peace."