Israeli warplanes struck several targets in Syria early Friday, prompting retaliatory missile launches, in the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago. Syria’s military said it had downed an Israeli plane and hit another as they were carrying out pre-dawn strikes near the desert city of Palmyra that it recaptured from jihadists this month. “Our air defenses engaged them and shot down one warplane over occupied territory, hit another one, and forced the rest to flee,” the army said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA.
The Israeli military denied that any planes had been struck. The Syrian government has made similar unfounded claims in the past. “The safety of Israeli civilians or the Israeli air force aircraft was at no point compromised,” Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner told reporters. Nevertheless, analysts said the incident represented a significant shift in Syria’s response to Israeli airstrikes inside its territory.
The air force said earlier that it had carried out several strikes on Syria overnight, but that none of the ground-to-air missiles fired by Syrian forces in response had hit Israeli aircraft. It was an unusual confirmation by the Jewish state of air raids inside Syria. “Overnight… aircraft targeted several targets in Syria,” an Israeli army statement said.
“Several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria following the mission and (Israeli) aerial defense systems intercepted one of the missiles,” it said. None of the missiles fired from Syria hit their targets, the army added.
One missile was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow air defense system, Israeli media reported. It would be one of the first times the system has been used.
A Jordanian military source said shrapnel from one missile fell in the north of the kingdom without causing any casualties.
Yaakov Amidror, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said weapons convoys of the Iran-backed Hezbollah remained a “red line” for the Jewish state and that Israel would continue to attack them when deemed necessary.
Witnesses reported two explosions that could have been caused by the launch of the anti-missile system. The Arrow 3 interceptor, designed to shoot down ballistic missiles, was handed to Israeli air force ground crews in January after successful testing by Israel and the United States.
Israel seized most of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981.
Israel pays close attention to developments in the Syrian conflict for fear that it could be exploited by its arch-rival Iran to install allies close to the armistice line on the Golan and Israel’s borders.