The shadow war between Israel and Iran burst into open warfare over the weekend with a brazen and reckless Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) intrusion into Israeli airspace. The drama unfolded on Saturday at 4:25 a.m. when an Iranian reconnaissance drone, believed to be a knockoff of the American RQ-170 Sentinel UAV, penetrated into Israeli airspace for approximately 90 seconds before being shot down by an Israeli Apache attack helicopter of the 113th Squadron near the Israeli town of Bet Shean in the Jordan Valley.
Israeli intelligence had been monitoring the aircraft and its flight path soon after it took off from an Iranian controlled airbase called T4 located near the Syrian city of Palmyra. Immediately after intercepting the drone, the Israeli Air Force attacked the command and control vehicle responsible for controlling and monitoring the UAV, and obliterated it.
Returning IAF aircraft were met with a hail of anti-aircraft fire. According to Israeli sources, the Syrians fired between 15 and 20 antiaircraft missiles. One of them, believed to be either a long-range SA-5 or medium-range SA-17, locked on to an F-16 Sufa fighter bomber and exploded near the aircraft, peppering the jet with shrapnel.
Both pilot and navigator safely ejected and the plane crashed in a field in Israel’s Jezreel Valley. Fortunately, no civilians were hurt. The navigator will likely be released from the hospital today or tomorrow, while the pilot is still recovering from abdominal injuries but is said to be fully conscious and breathing on his own. His condition continues to improve and doctors are optimistic.
It was the first time that an Israel jet fighter had been shot down since June 1982 when an A-4 Sky Hawk was shot down over Beirut during the initial phases of Operation Peace for Galilee. In 1983, an F-4 Phantom crashed in Lebanon but that was due to a technical malfunction rather than hostile fire. In 2006, an Israeli Yassur heavy-lift transport helicopter was shot down by a MANPADS fired by Hezbollah terrorists.
Immediately following the crash, Israel launched a furious and devastating bombardment against Syrian and Iranian military positions, attacking twelve military sites throughout the country. Four of those sites were Iranian bases and encampments while the remaining sites were Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries and military bases including a base belonging to the Syrian army’s 104th airborne division.
Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the deputy head of the IAF termed the attack as, “the biggest and most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses since Operation Peace for the Galilee.” During that conflict, the IAF destroyed 19 Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries while swatting 80 Syrian MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters from the skies, for no losses.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least six Assad regime fighters and their allies were killed in the wave of attacks but the death toll is expected to climb. As is their wont, neither the Syrian government nor the Iranians provided casualty figures.
Delirious Shia and supporters of the Assad regime cheered in the capitals of Tehran, Damascus and Beirut upon hearing news of the F-16’s demise. Such celebrations are beyond absurd. The fact that after thousands of sorties over hostile territory, a single jet was downed does not mean that Israel has lost air supremacy. To claim otherwise is utter nonsense. Moreover, the myopic celebrants, drunk on phantom victories glaringly ignored other notable aspects of the military encounter; chiefly, the rapid interception of the UAV, the destruction of its command and control vehicle, and the destruction and devastation wrought upon multiple Iranian and Syrian bases hit in the wave of Israeli retaliatory strikes.
There are a number of takeaways from this engagement.
- The Islamic Republic had tried to dictate the rules of the game by launching a UAV into Israel. They failed in this regard. The IDF’s quick and devastating response put to rest any foolhardy Iranian notions that Israel will ignore future border transgressions and further Iranian entrenchment in Syria. If anything, it was Israel, by its swift and overwhelming reaction to Iranian aggression that changed the rules of the game. Iranian outposts throughout Syria and beyond will no longer be immune to attack.
- The Syrian Army does not exactly have a stellar record in shooting down Israeli aircraft. Were Russian advisers present and advising their Syrian underlings when the missiles were launched? Even worse, were the Russians actually manning the batteries? The answers to these questions may never be known but an Israeli-Iranian clash and heightened regional tensions run counter to Russian interests. Israel and Russia have maintained continuous dialogue through diplomatic and military channels in an effort to avoid military confrontations and lower tensions. Indeed, just ten days prior to the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow for talks with his counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two leaders enjoy a good business-like relationship.
- Obama’s foreign policies continue to have a lingering, deleterious effect. The Iran deal provided the Iranians with a badly needed cash infusion. The $1.7 billion in cash that Obama transferred to the Iranians on wooden pallets and the billions of dollars Iran received from sanctions relief have been channeled to fuel their overseas wars. Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and its use of UAVs to violate Israeli airspace is a direct consequence of the Iran deal.
- The Iranian UAV was a knockoff of the American RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone. Iran captured a Sentinel in 2011 when one crashed in Iran under mysterious circumstances. There has been speculation that Iranian cyber hackers intercepted the Sentinel’s data link or otherwise misdirected it by hacking into its GPS. Whether it crashed by itself or was hacked, the Sentinel and all of its technology fell into Iranian hands relatively intact. Obama asked the Iranians to return the UAV and the Iranians naturally refused and likely reversed engineered the UAV with the help of the Russians and Chinese. But Obama had another option that involved bombing and destroying the Sentinel after its seizure by the Iranians. As former vice president Dick Cheney noted, “The right response to [Iran’s seizure] would have been to go in immediately after it had gone down and destroy it.” Cheney added that it could have been accomplished with an airstrike but instead, Obama, “asked nicely for them to return it, and they aren't going to.”
The events of the weekend make clear that we are entering a dangerous new phase of Iranian malignancy. The reversals suffered by anti-Assad rebels have enabled Iran to concentrate its aggressive efforts beyond the Syrian battleground. It’s safe to say that the only regional power capable of blunting and even reversing Iran’s expansion is Israel.