Israel launched a major attack on Iranian and Syrian targets in what appeared to be Israel’s first direct engagement with Iranian forces in the Golan Heights, risking a new escalation in the area.
JERUSALEM — The Israeli military said that one of its F-16 fighter jets crashed early Saturday in northern Israel after coming under heavy Syrian antiaircraft fire and that it had seized an Iranian drone that penetrated its airspace from Syria.
The events appeared to be Israel’s first direct engagement with Iranian forces across the increasingly volatile boundary in the Golan Heights, risking a new escalation in Syria’s multifaceted seven-year war in the area.
The Israeli military said two pilots had bailed from the downed aircraft “as per procedure.” One pilot was severely injured as a result of “an emergency evacuation,” it said.
Israel also said it had carried out a “large scale attack” against the Syrian Aerial Defense System and Iranian targets in Syria, presumably in response to the downing of the F-16. The military later said that the jet had crashed after been targeted by Syrian ground antiaircraft fire.
If confirmed, it would be the first time in decades that Syria had shot down an Israeli jet. In the past, Syria has claimed, falsely, that it had shot down Israeli aircraft.
Either way, the jet crash represented a severe blow to Israel’s prestige and could mark a major change after years in which Israel has acted against targets in Syria with relative impunity.
The Israeli military said in statement that it “sees the Iranian attack and the Syrian response as a severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” and added that it was “ fully prepared for further action.”
After the initial attack on the drone launching facilities, Israel said later Saturday that it had attacked 12 additional targets, including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets “that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.”
Later Saturday morning, clashes appeared to be continuing. There were new Israeli airstrikes around the capital, Damascus, according to Syrian state media and Damascus residents.
The sounds of explosions could be heard near Damascus, to the south and to the west, residents said. There was also what sounded like the launch of rockets or missiles from Mezze air base, located in Damascus.
Syrian state television said the Syrian military’s antiaircraft guns were responding to Israeli airstrikes.
Israel has long warned about the risk of conflict as a result of Iranian-backed forces, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah militia, digging in Syrian territory and approaching the boundary with the Israeli-held portion of the Golan Heights. Israel has been lobbying world powers to distance these forces from the border areas.
Israel seized the strategic plateau from Syria in the 1967 war and fought off an invasion there in 1973. Though the area remained quiet for decades, it has become a growing flash point throughout Syria’s war.
Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria during the war, largely targeting what it says are advanced weapons stores or convoys taking weapons to Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, but sometimes reportedly hitting Syrian government facilities involved in weapons development.
Syria’s government has always said that it would respond at a proper time and place, and it has occasionally returned fire with antiaircraft guns and missiles.
The Israeli military said that a combat helicopter intercepted the Iranian drone before dawn on Saturday. The drone was believed to have originated from an airfield near Palmyra, Syria.
“The aircraft was identified by the Aerial Defense Systems at an early phase and was under surveillance until the interception,” the military said, adding that it “ attacked the Iranian aircraft’s launch components in Syrian territory.”
Later Saturday, air-raid sirens sounded again in the Israeli-held Golan Heights and in the Galilee area of northern Israel, though there were no immediate reports of incoming fire.
The clash showed the extent to which Syria has become a battlefield between Israel and Iran, among many other intersecting conflicts involving foreign combatants.
Two days ago, United States forces struck pro-government forces that, according to reports, included some Russian military contractors, as well as Iran-backed Syrian fighters.
In addition, Turkey is attacking United States-backed Kurds and threatening to escalate that conflict, possibly risking conflict between two NATO allies.