A simmering conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria could have erupted into another regional war were it not for the intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to an Israeli investigative journalist.
On Feb. 10, 2018, an Israeli air force helicopter shot down what Israel says was an Iranian drone launched from the Tiyas Military Airbase in central Syria by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The drone was shot down a minute and a half after entering Israeli airspace, the investigative journalist, Ronen Bergman, wrote in an op-ed article in The New York Times.
Israel responded by sending eight F-16 fighter jets into Syria to destroy the drone’s command-and-control center. While flying back to Israel, they came under attack from Syrian anti-aircraft missiles — one of which, an S-200, took down an F-16, forcing the pilots to eject.
Israel hit back, going after Syria’s air-defense system. The Israeli military says it hit multiple Syrian and Iranian targets.
Israel has long been worried about Iran’s activities and growing influence in the region, especially in Syria, where Iran has backed pro-government forces during the country’s years-long civil war.
“The response to the downing of the Israeli jet was intended to be a lot more violent,” Bergman wrote, adding that Israeli generals brought out plans “for a huge offensive operation in Syria.”
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But a “furious phone call” from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces in Syria were close by, “was enough to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel cancel the plans,” Bergman wrote.
A former Israeli army general appeared to confirm Bergman’s reporting.
If the F-16 hadn’t been shot down, Israel “would be able to keep this issue at a very, very low profile,” Udi Dekel, a former Israeli army brigadier general who was the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ strategic-planning division, said Feb. 14 on a call organized by the Israel Policy Forum.
“Because we lost the F-16, we decided to respond against many important targets inside Syria,” Dekel said, among them air defenses, Syrian army positions, and Iranian positions around Damascus.
Israel wanted “to send a message that we could not accept any idea that they would try to shoot down our aircraft in our skies,” Dekel said.
Dekel said Israel did not pursue further strikes because it wanted to see the Syrian and Iranian response. But he added that there was “intervention by the Russians, who asked us not to escalate the situation anymore and to try and calm down the situation.”
These recent actions are likely to increase tensions in the Middle East — but Dekel says he doesn’t think this is the “end of the story.”
“We killed Iranians operating the UAV and in other locations, so I assume they will try to find any opportunity for revenge against us,” he said, referring to the drone with the abbreviation for an unmanned aerial vehicle.