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 extremist 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.