JERUSALEM — In its first known military engagement with Iranian forces, Israel responded to a drone incursion into its territory early Saturday by bombing the launch site in Syria, according to Israeli military officials.
Returning from that mission, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down over Israeli territory by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.
That prompted Israel to respond with what the army called “a large-scale operation” targeting 12 Syrian and Iranian military sites.
The attacks and counterattacks also were the first time since 1982 that Israel and Syria have engaged in direct combat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long warned of the danger of Iran’s growing military presence only yards away from Israel’s northern border.
The chain of events Saturday threatens to escalate into active combat between Syrian government forces and Israel, which has remained an outsider in the 7-year-old Syrian civil war.
The first hint that anything was amiss came at 4:15 a.m. Israeli time, as air raid sirens sounded over the communities in the Beit Shean valley in the lower Galilee.
An automatic warning system was triggered by the Iranian drone — launched from Syria — that penetrated Israeli airspace in what appeared to be an attempt to collect intelligence.
The Israeli army released a video showing the incursion of the drone, which was shot down by Apache helicopters. The drone was “an advanced, low-signature model Israel has never before captured,” said Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, second-in-command of Israel’s air force.
In retaliation for the incursion, Israel bombed the Iranian drone control site in Syria.
Struck by advanced Syrian air defense batteries on their return, the pilots of one Israeli jet ejected before their F-16 crashed. They were injured but survived.
The jet fell to earth next to a high school in the Galilean community of Hardouf. The school was empty early on the weekend morning.
Then Israel attacked, and for a second time, rocket sirens sounded in Israel’s north as Syrian state television reported “a new “Israeli aggression” in the form of explosions close to the capital city of Damascus.
“Syria and Iran are playing with fire,” said Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Lt. Jonathan Conricus.
The Iranian foreign ministry said the Israeli claim that it intercepted a drone was “ridiculous.”
“Reports of downing an Iranian drone flying over Israel and also Iran’s involvement in attacking an Israeli jet are so ridiculous … . Iran only provides military advice to Syria,” Iran foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying on Iranian television.
A statement issued by the commander of the joint Syrian-Iranian operations room said the drones had been “on a routine mission” over eastern Syria for operations against remaining Islamic State pockets in the area when the Israeli warplanes struck the control center at the Tiyas airport, a military airbase also known as T4 roughly 55 miles southeast of the Syrian city of Homs.
“This action by the Zionist entity is a condemnable terrorist attack … and any new aggression will face a harsh and serious response,” it said.
Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most stalwart ally, which has established several military bases in Syria during the course of the civil war, said in a statement issued by the foreign ministry that it urged “all sides to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could lead to an even greater complication of the situation.”
“It is necessary to unconditionally respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries in the region.”
The downing of the Israeli jet by Syria represents a sobering juncture in Netanyahu’s intense efforts to avoid military entanglements with Russia through a “deconfliction mechanism.”
At a Jan. 30 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Netanyahu said: “The most important thing I think is to make sure that we understand each other and that we don’t shoot down each other’s planes. And we decided to do what is called in this awful jargon deconfliction, which means not shooting each other. And we established a mechanism to do that, and that mechanism holds secure.”
In a statement Saturday, the Pentagon said that the U.S. did not participate in the Israeli military operation in Syria and that it fully supports “Israel’s inherent right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people.”
It called for “greater international resolve in countering Iran’s malign activities.”
Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in an interview that the U.S. appears to be “ceding all the diplomacy to Russia” and in doing so, was making a mistake.
“Thus far, the U.S. seems absent from the playing field, which does not serve its own interests or that of its closest regional ally, Israel.
“Normally, in a moment of crisis or of potential escalation, American diplomacy coordinates very closely with Israel and is critical for containing these situations and deterring Israeli and U.S. enemies from acting aggressively,” said Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based militia and a close Iranian ally, announced that the downing of the Israeli jet represents “the start of a new strategic era.”
The last time Israel and Lebanon engaged in direct combat was June 1982, when Israel entered the south of Lebanon to uproot Palestinian guerrillas using the area as a staging ground for attacks into Israel.
Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli air force general who once headed Israel’s military intelligence, said that the downing of the plane Saturday in northern Israel raised the possibility that “Syria may have used a long-range missile that Israel has been worried about.”
In an interview, he noted, “This means Israeli jets are exposed and vulnerable within Israeli borders.”
Israeli observers noted that if there was any good news, it was that the pilots were not forced to eject over Syrian territory, where they could have been captured by Islamic State militias or the Syrian army. While the extremist militants and the Syrian army are fighting each other, they share a common enemy in the Jewish state.
On Feb. 3, a Russian fighter jet was shot down in a rebel-held area of northern Syria. The pilot survived the initial attack by ejecting but was killed by militia fighters on the ground.