By Anna Ahronheim
Since the intervention of the Russians and the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias including Hezbollah, the tide has turned in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad who has become more brazen as he regains control over more territory.
Early on Saturday morning, an advanced Iranian drone believed to be a copy of a US stealth drone that was downed in Iran in 2011, drone took off from the T4 airbase deep in the Syrian province of Homs.
The drone was spotted by Israel and was intercepted near the town of Beit She’an by an Apache attack helicopter after it had flown 1.5 minutes into Israeli territory.
In response, Israeli F-16 fighter jets took off to strike the launch site and were met by massive Syrian antiaircraft fire, over 20 missiles launched from SA-5 and SA-17 batteries.
The pilots of one of the F16s ejected from their jet, which crashed in the lower Galilee. It is assumed that the jet was hit by shrapnel by the Syrian antiaircraft fire.
It was the first time in 30 years that an Israeli jet was lost in a combat situation. This led to an extensive retaliation by Israel with additional strikes against both the Syrian missile batteries and Iranian military targets.
According to IAF chief of air staff Brig.-Gen. Tomer Bar, the second in command of Israel’s air force, it was the most extensive Israeli attack against Syrian air defenses since 1982.
Syria’s army was almost decimated over the course of the deadly civil war, with some questioning how “Syrian Arab” is the Syrian Arab Army, which is propped up by some 80,000 fighters belonging to the Lebanese Shia terror group Hezbollah and another 10,000 other Shi’ite militia fighters.
As troops loyal to Assad continue to march back to Israel’s border, winning battles with local rebel and al-Qaida linked groups, Israel is watching with concern.
Officials have been warning of Iranian entrenchment on the Golan Heights, an area of key strategic importance for the Jewish state, stressing that it is a red line for Jerusalem.
Once the Assad regime re-cements its hold on the entirety of the country, these fighters, who have been trained and equipped by Iran are unlikely to return to their homes in Lebanon, Afghanistan or Iran.
Their sights will likely turn towards Israel, Syria’s old foe.
On Sunday, OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoel Strick warned that while Israel is not interested in escalating the situation, the IDF would not allow an Iranian presence in Syria.
“Those who cross the border will, on any level, receive an appropriate response. Iranian involvement in the region is a disturbing threat to Israel and the entire world. Iran wants to create a front command in Syria – we will not allow it,” he said at a ceremony marking the change of the command in the Northern Command’s 210th “Bashan” Division, which is responsible for guarding the Syrian border and the Golan Heights.
“We are not inclined toward escalation, but we have high-level capabilities and we will not hesitate to use them,” Strick added.
Incoming commander Brig.-Gen. Amit Fisher warned not only of the Iranian entrenchment across the border but the return of Syrian troops to an area which was relatively quiet for close to six years while under the control of rebels.
“We must prepare ourselves operationally and in terms of intelligence for the growing threat: The return of the Syrian army and Iranian forces, Hezbollah and others.”
For Israel, the next chapter in Syria’s war will be a nightmare scenario.