A frontline Israeli F-16I was destroyed on Saturday after it came under heavy attack by Syrian-based anti-aircraft missiles during a round of strikes and counter-strikes prompted by an early morning breach of Israeli airspace by an Iranian UAV.
Pilots of the F-16I waited until they returned to Israeli airspace before ejecting from the single-engine fighter, which fell near a kibbutz in the central Galilee region. Both were taken to hospital, where they are being treated for injuries. It was the first time an Israeli fighter plane was destroyed by enemy action since 1982.
In response to the extraordinary downing of an Israeli frontline fighter jet, Israel launched what a military spokesman characterized as a “broad attack” against 12 Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria, including Syrian SA-17 and SA-5 anti-aircraft batteries and Iranian assets deployed in country in support of Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad.
“Twelve targets were attacked, including three Syrian air defense batteries and four targets belonging to Iran that constitute part of Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman, said Saturday.
The latest escalation beyond Israel’s northern border was prompted by an early morning infiltration into Israeli airspace by an Iranian UAV, which was tracked and ultimately downed by an Israel Air Force AH-64D Apache helicopter.
In response to the initial UAV infiltration, Israel targeted an Iranian UAV command and control trailer at a base near the Syrian capital of Damascus. When Syrian-based anti-aircraft batteries fired on the Israeli F-16 formation sent to bomb the Iranian command and control trailer, Israel launched the second, much broader wave of attacks on Syrian and Iranian assets.
“Iran is the aggressor here. They sent a UAV on a military mission, violating Israeli sovereignty. The IDF is ready for all scenarios, and urges Iran and Syria to cease aggression,” Conricus said.
All Israeli fighters returned safely from the second wave of retaliatory attack.
In response to the Feb. 10 attacks, Russia, which controls the skies in Syria where the Iranian UAV was launched and where Israel launched its own retaliatory strikes, called on “all sides” to exercise restraint. “We urge all sides to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could lead to an even greater complication of the situation, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Saturday.
It added, ”It is necessary to unconditionally respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries in the region.”
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.