Syria fires missiles at Israeli jets after airstrikes

JERUSALEM — Syria fired missiles at Israeli warplanes on a mission to destroy a weapons convoy destined for the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah prompting it to deploy its missile defense system, Israeli officials said, in a rare military exchange between the two hostile neighbors.

The Israeli military said its aircraft struck several targets in Syria and were back in Israeli-controlled airspace when several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria toward the Israeli jets.

Israeli aerial defense systems intercepted one of the missiles, the army said, without elaborating. It would not say whether any other missiles struck Israeli-held territory, but said the safety of Israeli civilians and Israeli aircraft was "not compromised."

Israel is widely believed to have carried out several airstrikes in recent years on advanced weapons systems in Syria — including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles — as well as Hezbollah positions. It rarely comments on such operations and the military statement detailing the raid and comments confirming the operation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were highly unusual.

"Our policy is very consistent. When we identify attempts to transfer advanced weapons to the Hezbollah, and we have the intelligence and the operational capability, we act to prevent that. That is what was and that is what will be," Netanyahu said.

Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad in the brutal Syrian civil war. The Iran-backed group is sworn to Israel's destruction and fought a month-long war with the Jewish state in 2006.

The firing of missiles from Syria toward Israeli aircraft is rare, though Israeli military officials reported a shoulder-fired missile attack a few months ago.

Israeli Channel 10 TV reported that Israel deployed its Arrow defense system for the first time against a real threat and hit an incoming missile, intercepting it before it exploded in Israel.

However, Arrow is designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles high in the stratosphere, so it remained unclear why the system would have been used in this particular incident.

The Israeli military would not comment on the type of system used.

Israel's powerful transportation and intelligence minister Yisrael Katz told the station "our message is clear, we will not be complacent with a Syrian policy that arms Hezbollah." Katz said "the fact that the incident developed into a situation where Israel claimed responsibility and the Syrians responded is significant."

A Syrian military statement said four Israeli warplanes violated Syrian airspace — flying into Syria through Lebanese territory — and targeted a military position in central Syria.

Damascus said Syrian anti-aircraft systems confronted the planes and claimed one of the jets was shot down in Israeli- controlled territory and that another was hit. The Israeli military denied the claim, saying none of the jets had been hit.

There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah.

The pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV, which has good sources within the militant group, dismissed reports by other Arab media outlets that a Hezbollah commander, Badee Hamiyeh, was killed in one of the airstrikes. It said Hamiyeh was killed Thursday in the southern Syrian region of Quneitra, near the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

Jordan, which borders both Israel and Syria, said parts of the missiles fell in its rural northern areas, including the Irbid district. The Jordanian military said the debris came from the Israeli interception of missiles fired from Syria.

Radwan Otoum, the Irbid governor, told the state news agency Petra that the missile parts caused only minor damage.

A chunk of missile crashed into the courtyard of a home in the community of Inbeh in northern Jordan, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Syrian border.

Umm Bilal al-Khatib, a local resident, said she heard a blast at around 3 a.m. and initially thought a gas cylinder had exploded. When she went outside she found a small crater and a 3-meter-long (10-foot) cylinder.

Israeli media said the interception by the Arrow system took place north of Jerusalem.

Arrow is part of what Israel calls its "multilayer missile defense," comprised of different systems meant to protect against short and long range threats, including the thousands of missiles possessed by Hezbollah in Lebanon and rockets used by Hamas and other Islamic militant groups in Gaza.

Israel has been largely unaffected by the Syrian civil war raging next door, suffering mostly sporadic incidents of spillover fire that Israel has generally dismissed as tactical errors by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces. Israel has responded to the errant fire with limited reprisals on Syrian positions.

The Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad, eventually descended into a full-blown civil war, with Syrian government forces fighting an array of rebel groups. The chaos has allowed al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria and the Islamic State group to expand their reach.

The skies over Syria are now crowded, with Russian and Syrian aircraft backing Assad's forces and a U.S.-led coalition striking Islamic State and al-Qaida targets.

© The Associated Press This Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 photo shows an Israeli Air Force F-15 plane in flight during a graduation ceremony for new pilots in the Hatzerim air force base near the city of Beersheba, Israel. Anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria into Israeli-controlled territory early on Friday, following a series of Israeli airstrikes inside Syria, the Israeli military said. The military said its warplanes struck several targets in Syria and were back in Israeli-controlled airspace when several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria toward the Israeli jets. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)


Israel carries out air strikes inside Syria

The Israeli army says its aircraft have carried out several strikes inside Syria, prompting Syrian forces to retaliate with ground-to-air missiles, one of which was intercepted.

Thursday night's attack was one of the most serious incidents between the two countries, which remain technically at war, since civil war broke out in Syria in March 2011.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the strikes targeted "advanced" weapons bound for Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that fought a war with Israel in 2006 and is now fighting alongside the Syrian government.

In response to the strikes, the Syrian government deployed air defence systems and fired a number of missiles towards Israeli jets, Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

None of the missiles struck the jets, the army said, though one of the projectiles was intercepted by Israel's Arrow missile defence system north of Jerusalem, according to Haaretz.

"Overnight ... aircraft targeted several targets in Syria," an Israeli army statement said on Friday.

"Several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria following the mission and [army] aerial defence systems intercepted one of the missiles."

Rocket sirens sounded in Israeli settlements in the Jordan valley, the military said and two witnesses heard an explosion a few minutes later, Reuters news agency reported.

'Unidentified object'

Syria's army high command confirmed in a statement on Friday that Israeli jets breached Syrian airspace early in the morning and attacked a military target near Palmyra.

The high command described the attack as an act of aggression that aided the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, which is fighting against the Syrian government.

It said its air defences shot down one of four Israeli jets over what it called "occupied ground" and damaged another.

There were no reports by the Israeli army of any aircraft lost in the operation.

Jordanian news reports said an "unidentified object" fell from the skies on Thursday night in the northern area of Irbid, after which security forces surrounded the area of impact.

Pictures shared on social media showed what appeared to be part of a missile that had landed in a yard.

It was not clear whether the object was part of of missile intercepted by Israel, part of an Israeli missile, or another object.

Both Israeli and other news media have reported Israeli air strikes inside Syria targeting arms convoys of Lebanese group Hezbollah, which fought a 2006 war with Israel and is now fighting alongside the Syrian government.

But normally Israel makes no official comment.


Syria Retaliates Against Israeli Airstrikes as Tensions Escalate

Israeli airstrikes on Syrian targets overnight triggered the most visible skirmish between the two neighbors since Syria’s civil war began in 2011.

The Israeli army on Friday confirmed the attack. Syria responded by firing several missiles at the aircraft -- one of which was intercepted by Israel’s air defense systems. Syria used Russian-made SA-5 surface-to-air missiles and Israel responded with its new anti-ballistic Arrow system, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

The exchange indicates that tensions may be escalating between the two countries as Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad tighten their grip after years of civil war. That could make it harder for Israel to prevent weapons being smuggled from Syria to the militant group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.

The missiles triggered Israel’s emergency sirens, which may have forced the army to issue a rare communique confirming the skirmish. “At no point was the safety of Israeli civilians or the IAF aircraft compromised,” it said. Syrian state television later said an Israeli jet was hit, a claim Israel denied.

It isn’t the first time that Syria has fired anti-aircraft missiles at Israel, but it was the first time that Israel officially deployed the Arrow system, Haaretz said. The system was developed with financial backing from the U.S. in response to Arab states’ long-range surface-to-surface missiles.

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