Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet after it flew over the Golan Heights, the Israeli army said today, the first such incident in almost 30 years and the neighbors’ most serious clash since the start of Syria’s civil war.
The Sukhoi fighter was downed by a U.S.-made Patriot missile fired by Israeli military personnel, and the crew ejected over Syrian territory across the Golan frontier, the Israeli army said. The attack came as the U.S. launched its first airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria in a major expansion of its campaign to defeat the militants.
“We will not allow any party whatsoever, whether it be a nation or terrorist organization, to threaten our security and violate our sovereignty,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in an e-mailed statement.
Syria’s civil war
Israel captured the southern section of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed the strategic plateau in a step that was condemned at the United Nations. Mortars and shells fired by forces fighting in Syria have landed in the Israeli-held Golan several times since the start of the civil war in 2011, often prompting Israeli retaliatory fire across the border at Syrian military positions.
“We said very clearly that we will defend Israel on one hand and not be part of this war on the other hand,” said Ram Shmueli, a former head of Israel Air Force intelligence, who briefed reporters about the Golan incident in a conference call organized by the Israel Project, a non-governmental group that supports Israeli policy making.
It was the first Israeli downing of a Syrian fighter jet since 1985, when aircraft from the two countries engaged in a dogfight over Lebanon.
“While this incident reflects the growing tensions on the Syrian border since the start of their civil war, I don’t think it will necessarily lead to any kind of escalation,” said Shlomo Brom, a retired general and senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “We’ve seen several similar incidents involving Syria and Turkey, and when you have a conflict going on next to you, these mistakes happen.”
Turkey has shot down Syrian aircraft that entered its airspace, and has fired into Syria in response to shells that have struck Turkish frontier towns and villages.
The Pentagon said today that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain “participated in or supported” strikes against 14 Islamic State targets near their stronghold of Raqqa and along the Iraqi border, the Pentagon said in an e-mailed statement today.
The U.S. and allies are seeking to reverse the advances of Islamic State, which has seized a swath of territory across Iraq and Syria. That has prompted alarm among neighboring nations, including the Sunni Arab monarchies taking part in the operation.