JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG)– Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday (Feb 11) that Israeli forces would press ahead with Syria operations despite their loss of an advanced warplane to enemy fire for the first time in 36 years.
The F-16 fighter plane crashed on Saturday in northern Israel after it was likely hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile, an Israeli army spokesman said yesterday. The jet was downed after Israel struck an Iranian control base near Palmyra, inside Syria, said Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman.
Israel says the Iranian base had been used to dispatch a drone into Israeli airspace earlier in the day.
Iran-backed forces are supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s near seven-year civil war.
Israel later launched a second and more intensive air raid, hitting what it said were 12 Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria, including Syrian air defence systems.
However, Israel and Syria have both signalled they are not seeking wider conflict and on Sunday their frontier was calm, though Mr Netanyahu struck a defiant tone in remarks to his cabinet broadcast by Israeli media.
“Yesterday we landed hard blows on the forces of Iran and Syria. We made unequivocally clear to everyone that our modus operandi has not changed one bit,” he said.
Iran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel, which has said it would counter any threat. Israel also has accused Iran of planning to build precision-guided missile factories in Lebanon.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Israel’s strikes on Saturday had killed at least six people from Syrian government and allied forces. Syrian state media have yet to disclose any casualties or damage.
The downing of the F-16 over northern Israel was a rare setback for a country that relies on regional military supremacy.
Security cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio the Iranian drone was modelled on the United States’ RQ-170 drone that was downed in Iran in 2011. The US Embassy did not immediately comment.
The F-16’s two-man crew survived with injuries, and Israeli generals insisted they had inflicted much greater damage in Syria – even as Damascus claimed a strategic gain in the decades-old standoff with its old foe to the south.
Israel said it had destroyed three Syrian anti-aircraft batteries and four targets “that are part of Iran’s military establishment” in Syria during Saturday’s raids.
“This is the broadest attack on Syria’s defence systems since (Operation) Peace for the Galilee,” air force Brigadier-General Amnon Ein Dar told Army Radio, referring to Israel’s 1982 Lebanon offensive, in which it battled Syrian forces.
In Syria, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper said the country’s air defences had “destroyed the myth of Israeli air superiority in the region”.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani also struck a defiant tone on Sunday at a rally in Teheran marking the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
President Rouhani made no specific reference to Israel’s air strikes in Syria. But he told the crowd: “They (US and Israel) wanted to create tension in the region ... they wanted to divide Iraq, Syria ... They wanted to create long-term chaos in Lebanon but ... but with our help their policies failed.”
Apart from backing the Syrian regime, Iran also supports Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
In a further show of defiance, Iran put its Ghadr ballistic missile with a range of 2,000km on display in Teheran’s central Vali-ye Asr street.
Both the United States, Israel’s closest ally, and Russia, which supports Mr Assad, have expressed concern over the latest clashes.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was due to begin a previously scheduled visit to the region on Sunday, expecting what a State Department official said would be “tough conversations”.
He is due to travel to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Kuwait during the Feb 11-16 trip.
In a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, Mr Netanyahu affirmed Israel’s right to self-defence and pledged continued cooperation with Moscow to avoid inadvertent clashes with Russian forces in Syria.
Mr Putin, whose country supplies Syria’s air defence systems, urged Mr Netanyahu to avoid an escalation of the conflict.