In a major escalation of tensions, Israel responded to a downed F-16 jet by launching heavy air strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria.
The F-16 went down over Israel on Saturday. It’s unclear whether the warplane crashed or was shot down by Iranian anti-aircraft batteries.
The Israeli military said early assessments indicated the jet had been shot down by Syrian fire, but this was still unconfirmed.
It marked the most serious confrontation yet in Syria between Israel and Iranian and Iran-backed forces that have established a major foothold in the country while fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war.
Israel said the F-16 crashed during a mission to strike Iranian drone installations in Syria. It said it sent its jets into Syria after shooting down an Iranian drone over Israeli territory earlier on Saturday.
The military alliance fighting in support of Assad denied any of its drones had entered Israeli air space. In a statement, it said Israel had targeted an air base in the Homs desert that is being used to fly drones in missions against Islamic State.
Such “terrorist action” by Israel would be met with a “severe and serious response,” it said.
The Israeli military spokesman said Israel did not seek escalation in the region, calling its action a “defensive effort triggered by an Iranian act of aggression”.
Iran’s expanding clout during Syria’s nearly seven-year-long war, including deployments of Iran-backed forces near the Golan frontier, has raised alarm in Israel, which has said it would act against any threat from its regional arch-enemy Tehran.
Iranian and Iran-backed Shi‘ite forces, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have deployed widely in support of Assad. Iran’s military chief warned Israel last October against breaching Syrian airspace and territory.
Israel’s air force has targeted Syrian military and Hezbollah targets in Syria on an almost regular basis, but its attacks on Saturday appeared to be the most intense yet.
The targets in Syria reflect Israel’s care in delivering a proportional response to Iranian aggression:
The Israeli military said 12 targets, including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria were attacked.
“During the attack, anti-aircraft missiles were fired towards Israel, triggering alarms that were heard in Northern Israel,” the military said.
Syrian state media reported two separate Israeli attacks.
The IDF reported “massive” anti-aircraft fire on its planes which could indicate a recent upgrade in Iranian air defenses.
Israel said that the F-16 was the first advanced fighter they’ve lost since 1980.
Escalation is now up to Iran, and with their hands full in Syria, it’s doubtful they want to start a war with Israel. But one “proportional response” could lead to another by Iran. It’s not likely that a conflict will spin out of control over this incident, but with the level of hatred between the two countries, anything is possible.