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Israel and Iran moved closer to confrontation in Syria as rising tensions erupted into the most serious standoff between the sides since the Syrian civil war began seven years ago.
The Israeli military on Saturday said it struck 12 targets in Syria, including four belonging to Iran, in a “large-scale attack” after an Iranian drone penetrated its airspace. An F-16 fighter plane crashed in northern Israel after coming under fire from Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, and the pilots were hospitalized with moderate to severe injuries.
Saturday’s confrontation comes amid Israeli warnings that it won’t let Syria become an Iranian base or a conduit for weapons bound for Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Iran and allied militias have fought alongside government troops against rebels and Islamist factions in the Syrian war.
“The question is whether the Iranians will respond or lower the fire at this stage,” said Ephraim Kam, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “My feeling is that they don’t have an interest in escalation.”
‘RIGHT AND DUTY’
On Saturday night, after hours of consultations with the defense minister and military chief of staff, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian drone flight as a “brazen” attempt to violate Israel’s sovereignty, and said it was Israel’s “right and duty” to respond.
“Israel’s face is turned toward peace, but we will continue to defend ourselves with determination against any attack on us and against any Iranian attempt to base itself in Syria or anywhere else,” Netanyahu said. “Iran seeks to use Syrian territory to attack Israel for its professed goal of destroying Israel.”
Iran disputed Israeli officials’ narrative, saying claims that the military drone is Iranian or that the nation had any involvement in downing the Israeli fighter were “ridiculous.”
“Iran’s presence in Syria is essentially advisory and based on requests from that country’s legal government,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said on Saturday, according to the state-run Mehr news agency.
Israel has attacked inside Syria frequently since the civil war began in March 2011, targeting Syrian military posts and arms shipments bound for Hezbollah. Until this weekend, occasional responses by Syria and Hezbollah against Israel had caused little damage.
Israeli officials wouldn’t confirm if the F-16 had been downed by a Syrian missile, as teams combed the crash site for remains to analyze. Across the border the event was taken as a victory, with dozens of Lebanese celebrating and waving Hezbollah’s flag.
The downing of the plane marks “the beginning of a new strategic stage that puts an end to violations of Syrian airspace and territory,” Hezbollah said.
Israeli media reported that the Iranian military drone was shot down near Beit Shean, close to the border with Jordan, after flying for about 90 seconds in Israeli airspace. Hadashot News reported the Israeli counterattack in Syria was believed to have destroyed a significant portion of the country’s air-defense system.
Netanyahu has made a number of visits to Russia, the dominant player in Syria, to lay out Israel’s red lines and ask President Vladimir Putin to rein in Iran. Netanyahu said he spoke to Putin again Saturday, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and that the Israeli and Russian militaries would continue their coordination to avoid inadvertent confrontation in Syria.
In a statement on its website Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was concerned about the Israeli attack and said it was unacceptable to create threats to the safety of Russian military personnel in Syria.
Israeli politicians from across the spectrum largely backed the government’s response. Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said that after Israel’s repeated warnings on Iran in Syria — what he called a “yellow card” for the Islamic Republic — Saturday’s strike represented a “red card.” Tzipi Livni of the opposition Zionist Union faction said the government must do more to build international backing for Israeli attacks in Syria.
A statement attributed to a war operations room that includes the Syrian army and allied militias said the Israeli strike targeted a drone base in the Tayfour military airbase, calling claims that the drone entered Israeli airspace “lies.” It said the drones collect information on militant groups, including Islamic State, for the Syrian army, and said the drone was on a routine mission Saturday morning targeting Islamic State remnants.
“Any new aggression will be met with a tough and serious response,” the statement said.
The current violence is the first direct engagement between Iran and Israel, said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.
“Before, it was done through proxies,” for example by the Syrian regime or the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, Nader said. “The risk is a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran that will encompass Syria and Lebanon.”