War in Syria: The next phase?
The downing of an Israeli fighter jet and an Iranian drone has raised tensions across the Middle East, writes Lisa Barrington
Anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria yesterday in the most serious confrontation yet between Israel and Iranian-backed forces based across the border.
The F-16, one of at least eight Israeli planes despatched in response to what Israel said was an Iranian drone's incursion into its airspace earlier in the day, was hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed in northern Israel.
Both pilots ejected and were injured, one critically.
Israel then 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.
Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group said the downing of the plane marked the "start of a new strategic phase" which would limit Israel's ability to enter Syrian airspace.
Iran's involvement in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad in a nearly seven-year-old civil war - including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights - has alarmed Israel, which has said it would counter any threat.
But Israel and Syria signalled they were not seeking wider conflict, even as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to military headquarters in Tel Aviv and the pro-Assad alliance pledged a strong response to any Israeli "terrorist action".
"Israel seeks peace, but we will continue to defend ourselves steadfastly against any attack against us or any attempt by Iran to establish itself against us in Syria," Netanyahu said in a televised statement.
Russia, whose forces began intervening on behalf of Assad in 2015, expressed its concern and urged both sides to exercise restraint and avoid escalation.
Netanyahu said he had spoken to Russia's Vladimir Putin and that they agreed Israel-Russia military coordination in regard to Syria would continue.
A Western diplomat in the region said: "My impression is that it seems to be contained at this point. I don't think anybody wants it to escalate further."
A Pentagon spokesman said the US fully supported Israel's right to defend itself against threats.
Saturday's chain of events began at 4:30am when an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian drone over the northern town of Beit Shean.
The drone had been sighted taking off from a base in Syria, and was intercepted after it crossed into Israeli territory, said an Israeli spokesman.
Israeli planes then struck an Iranian installation in Syria from where, the Israeli military said, the unmanned aircraft had been operated.
The Israeli military released grainy black and white footage of what it said was the drone's control vehicle in Syria being destroyed. The F-16 crashed on its return from the mission, coming down in an empty field near Harduf, east of Haifa.
"We heard a big explosion and then sirens. We didn't know what was happening, we heard helicopters and planes in the air," said one eyewitness.
Flights at Tel Aviv's international airport were briefly halted, but the area was quiet by mid-afternoon.
Missile remnants were found near the crash site. "We don't know yet if it's an SA-5 or SA-17, but it's a Syrian anti-aircraft missile," said an IDF spokesman.
Israel then launched a second bombing raid in Syria. The pro-Assad military alliance said Israel had attacked a drone base in central Syriabut denied any of its drones had entered Israeli airspace. Iran rejected the Israeli version of events as "ridiculous".
Yesterday afternoon Lebanon protested over Israel's use of its airspace to target Syria, saying it would complain to the UN Security Council about the breach. Lebanon's foreign ministry also said it supported Syria's "legitimate" right to respond to Israeli "aggression".
The statement said such "aggressive policy" threatened stability in the region and went on to urge concerned countries to "rein in" Israel.
It is the first time an Israeli F-16 had been brought down since Israel began using the jets in the 1980s. Israel, which also operates drones, has long maintained air superiority in the region. It mounts air strikes in Syria on a regular basis, striking suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group.
Iranian and Iran-backed Shi'ite forces, including Hezbollah, have deployed widely in Syria in support of Assad. Iran's military chief warned Israel last October against breaching Syrian airspace and territory.
Netanyahu, visiting the Golan last Tuesday, peered across the border into Syria and made public remarks warning Israel's enemies not to test its resolve.
But yesterday, after the downing of the F-16, an official in the pro-Assad alliance said a "message" had been delivered to Israel. But he added: "I do not believe matters will develop to a regional war."
An 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.
"The tough part is how to continue to walk a tightrope, where neither side wants an all-out war, but no one wants to be the one who absorbed the blow and didn't respond appropriately," said Uzi Rabi of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, speaking on Israeli television.
The Trump regime has backed Israel's hawkish stance on Iran, and has also declared containing Tehran's influence an objective of its Syria policy. On a controversial visit to Israel last month, US vice president Mike Pence called Iran the world's "leading state sponsor of terror".
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also expected to visit the region this week and is scheduled to visit Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and other countries.
Tensions have also spiked across the frontier between Israel and Lebanon over Israeli plans for a border wall, and Lebanese plans to exploit an offshore energy block which is partly located in disputed waters.
In Gaza, the armed wing of the Islamic group Hamas declared a full alert among its fighters because of the escalation of violence in northern Israel.
Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war and has occupied them ever since, annexing the territory in 1981. The United Nations has continued to reject Israel's claims to the region.
There has been an uneasy stand-off since a ceasefire deal that followed another war in 1973, with UN observer forces manning a buffer zone between the two armies.
Last November, Israel said it had shot down a Syrian reconnaissance drone over the demilitarised zone, and on February 8 shots were fired from Syrian territory at an Israeli drone, hitting a house in Israeli-occupied Golan.