Israel warns over Iran’s presence in Syria after air strikes
JERUSALEM – Agence France-Presse
Israel carried out major air raids in Syria on Feb. 10, including against what it described as Iranian targets in the country -- the first time it had publicly acknowledged doing so since the war began.
The raids came after an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses. The pilots survived, but it was Israel’s first loss of a warplane in battle since 1982.
“We inflicted on Saturday a heavy blow to Iranian and Syrian forces,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of Feb. 11’s cabinet meeting.
“We made clear to everyone that our rules of engagement will not change in any way. We will continue to harm anyone who tries to harm us. This was our policy and this will remain our policy.”
Other Israeli ministers spoke of refusing to accept Iran entrenching itself militarily in Syria, as Netanyahu has said repeatedly. Tehran denies it is doing so.
Israel has sought to stay out of direct involvement in the Syrian war, but it acknowledges carrying out dozens of air strikes there to stop what it describes as deliveries of advanced weapons to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
Israel fought a devastating war in 2006 with Hezbollah, which backs the Syrian regime in the conflict along with Iran and Russia.
Witnesses said Israel had deployed a missile defense system in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the demarcation line with Syria on Feb. 11 morning.
Feb. 10’s events began with Israel shooting down what it described as an Iranian drone that had entered Israeli airspace from Syria -- which Tehran has denied.
Israel responded with a raid against what it said was the Iranian control systems in Syria that sent the drone.
During that raid, the Israeli F-16 met heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and was hit, Israeli Air Force General Amnon Ein Dar told army radio.
The pilots ejected and the plane crashed inside Israel. One of the pilots was severely wounded, but his condition was said to be improving on Feb. 11.
Israel then carried out what it called “large-scale” air strikes inside Syria, including against what it described as Iranian targets.
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus warned Feb. 10 that Syria and Iran were “playing with fire”, but stressed that his country was not seeking an escalation.
“This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty” in recent years, Conricus said.
Iran dismissed Israeli “lies” and said Syria had the right to defend itself against Israeli attacks.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi also said “Iran does not have a military presence in Syria, and has only sent military advisers at the request of the Syrian government.”
Russia stressed the need to “avoid any measure that could lead to a dangerous escalation.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate de-escalation.
Netanyahu spoke with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after Saturday’s confrontation.
Washington backed Israel and blamed Iran for the escalation.
Netanyahu has met regularly with Putin in recent months in a bid to convince Russia to keep Iranian forces away from its territory in Syria.
Russia and Israel have also established a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in Syria.
Israel is technically at war with Syria and occupies a swathe of the Golan Heights that it seized in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community.