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Syria Fires Missiles at Israeli Jets After Airstrikes

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. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM — Syria fired missiles at Israeli warplanes early Friday after a series of Israeli airstrikes inside Syria — a rare military exchange between the two hostile neighbors that was confirmed by both sides.

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."

The army said the incident set off sirens in Jewish settlement communities in the Jordan Valley, part of the West Bank.

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

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.

Syria's Foreign Ministry sent letters to the U.N. chief and the president of the Security Council calling on them to "condemn the blatant Israeli aggression that is considered a violation of international law."

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.

The station said the Israeli military had been on a mission to destroy a weapons convoy destined for the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which is backed by Iran and fights alongside Syrian government forces.

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 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. She said her husband contacted Jordanian authorities, who removed the debris.

The Haaretz daily said the interception took place north of Jerusalem. However, the 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 had no immediate comment on the reports.

The 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.

Israel is widely believed to have carried out airstrikes on advanced weapons systems in Syria — including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles — as well as Hezbollah positions, but it rarely confirms such operations.

Hezbollah is pledged to Israel's destruction and fought a monthlong war with the Jewish state in 2006.

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Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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