OCCUPIED-AL-QUDS /BEIRUT: Israel launched its most intensive air strikes yet against Iranian forces in Syria on Saturday after intercepting what it said was an Iranian drone and the rare downing of an Israeli F-16 warplane.
The incidents marked the most serious confrontations in Syria between Israel and Iranian-backed forces that have established a major foothold in the country while fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad in a nearly seven-year-old civil war.
Iran’s expanding clout during the Syrian civil war, including deployments of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has raised alarm in Israel, which has said it would act against any threat from its regional arch-enemy Tehran.
But both Israel and Syria signalled they were not seeking wider conflict, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to military headquarters in Tel Aviv for consultations and the pro-Assad alliance pledged a strong response to any Israeli "terrorist action".
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that Moscow, whose forces began intervening on behalf of Assad in 2015, was seriously concerned by the latest developments in Syria.
"My impression is that it seems to be contained at this point," said a Western diplomat in the region.
The chain of events on Saturday began at 4.30 am when an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian drone over the northern town of Beit Shean, the Israeli military said.
The drone had been sighted taking off from a base in Syria, and was intercepted after it crossed into Israeli territory, said Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman.
Israeli planes, including at least eight jets, then struck an Iranian installation in Syria which the Israeli military said operated the unmanned aircraft.
One of those planes, a US-made F-16, crashed on its return from that mission, landing in an empty field near Harduf, east of Haifa, in northern Israel.
Both pilots ejected over Israeli territory and were injured, one of them critically. The Israeli military said that early assessments showed it was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, but could not immediately confirm that.
Air raid sirens sounded in the early morning of the Jewish sabbath in northern Israel and flights at Tel Aviv’s international airport were briefly halted.
The frontier fell quiet by mid-afternoon. Iran rejected the Israeli version of events as "ridiculous".
The pro-Assad military alliance denied that any of its drones entered Israeli air space. David Ivry, a former Israeli Air Force chief, told Reuters he believed it was the first time an Israeli F-16 was brought down since Israel began using the jets in the 1980s.
Israel, which also operates drones, has long maintained air superiority in the region. It mounts air strikes in Syria on a regular basis, striking suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group.
Iran’s military chief warned Israel last October against breaching Syrian airspace and territory.
Netanyahu, visiting the Golan on Tuesday, peered across the border into Syria and in public remarks warned Israel’s enemies not to test its resolve.
But on Saturday, after the downing of the F-16, an official in the pro-Assad alliance said a "message" had been delivered to Israel.
But he added: "I do not believe matters will develop to a regional war.
"An Israeli military spokesman said Israel did not seek escalation in the region, calling its action a defensive effort triggered by an Iranian act of aggression."