One day before the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, an Iranian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) entered Israeli airspace from Syria in the early morning hours today. An Israeli Apache helicopter shot down the UAV over the northern town of Beit Shean.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) then struck the “Iranian command vehicle” that “sent the UAV into Israeli airspace,” according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operates Iranian drones. The IDF said Syrian anti-aircraft batteries reacted with “massive” firepower and hit an F-16 jet that crashed in Israeli territory. Both pilots ejected prior to the crash, and one was reportedly in critical condition. In response, the Israel Air Force launched another raid, striking 12 targets including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military targets.
The IAF’s second-in-command called the attack “the biggest and most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses” since the 1982 Lebanon war.
While Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman said the Islamic Republic rejects the claim of “this illegal regime,” the IRGC deputy commander did not explicitly deny it took place. “We don’t confirm any report from Israel, because Israelis are liars,” said Brigadier General Hossein Salami. “If the Syrians confirm, this then we will confirm. We have no military presence in Syria and are only there in advisory presence, and the presence of the Syrian army to defend its land is sufficient.”
The “allies joint operations center in Syria,” which includes Iran, Russia and Syria, released a statement denying that a UAV entered Israeli airspace (the IRGC-affiliated media outlet’s translation called it “occupied Palestine”) and said that Israeli jets struck a UAV base at T4 airbase in eastern Homs. The statement claimed the UAVs were used “for reconnaissance against terrorist groups and DAESH and played an important role in clearing eastern Syria.”
It is “absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian servicemen,” said the Russian foreign ministry, which was seen as a criticism of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he has spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin, informing Putin of Israel’s intention to continue defending itself against any aggression and to prevent Iran from establishing a presence “in Syria or anywhere else.”
Hezbollah and IRGC media are trying to spin the downing of the Israeli jet as a game changer, after which “Israel cannot enter Syrian airspace like before and attack military targets before its jets crash.”
Since the outbreak of war in Syria, Israel has launched dozens of airstrikes against its adversaries’ supplies, installations, chemical-weapons facilities as well as high-value targets, such as Brigadier General Mohammad-Adli Allah-Dadi in 2015 and Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddin in 2016. Syria’s air batteries that include old Soviet systems such as the S-200 have failed to hit Israeli jets and deter strikes. The Russians, who have deployed their S-400 system to Syria, have not intervened.
Iran and Hezbollah have also not escalated against Israeli attacks. In Badreddin’s case, they actually blamed Sunni jihadists rather than Israel. These actions indicate that Iran and Hezbollah do not want to open another front with Israel right now, which would jeopardize their gains against insurgents in Syria. While they have made significant gains, pockets of insurgents remain, especially in the southwest by the Israeli border, and military operations against insurgents are ongoing.
Today’s incident comes amid a sensitive time for the Islamic Republic. It has witnessed the most significant challenge to its rule since 1979. The government has failed to address Iranians’ grievance, fueling resentment and anger. Left unaddressed, the irreconcilable conflicts could lead to protests and even revolution.
The world is aware of the mass protests that started in late Dec. 2017. Chants of “Let go of Syria, think of us” and “no Gaza, no Lebanon, my life be sacrificed for Iran” grabbed global attention. While the protests quieted down, at least for now, there have been demonstrations on a nearly daily basis before and since the latest mass protests, including labor strikes and protests against mandatory hijab and bankrupt financial institutions. Photos and videos of torched and destroyed banners of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and symbols of the Islamic Republic are not uncommon on social media. Another worrying trend for the government has been dissent among the rank-and-file of the military and security forces since the latest protests. There have been photos and videos on social media of the IRGC Basij paramilitary, Army and Law Enforcement Forces protesting the government and callings for its fall. There are also rumors about the collapse of the banking sector, which has led many Iranians to withdraw deposits and buy US dollars.
Given the environment, the timing of the IRGC’s decision to send a UAV into Israeli airspace as a test balloon is interesting. The Islamic Republic tested Israel, showed the political impact of a UAV and scored propaganda points for itself. The government hoped to boost morale among its base and distract Iranians from domestic issues. The problem is the majority of Iranians are unlikely to buy it. The Islamic Republic sought to complement its foreign adventure with fear – the news of an Iranian-Canadian environmental activist’s “suicide” during detention has gripped Iranians’ attention. But the wall of fear has been broken.
From a military standpoint, Israel again demonstrated its military superiority and its ability to strike targets at will in Syria. While there is heightened risk of war, Tehran remains risk-averse to a greater conflict – at least for now.
Update: Israeli officials have not clarified whether the UAV was armed or unarmed, other than noting that it was in Israeli airspace for a minute and half before being shot down. Senior officials say the drone was advanced and based on Western technology. Analysts speculate the UAV could have been a Saeqeh model, which is based on the American RQ-170 Sentinel. Iran acquired that technology in 2011 after a unit crashed in its territory. The IRGC in 2016 unveiled the Saeqeh, a model in the Simorq class, which is the reverse-engineered RQ-170 Sentinel.
Original footage showing #Iranian UAV infiltrating and then shot down over Israel, and #IDF strike on Iranian command vehicle in #Syria, IDF spokesman LT COL Jonathan Conricus, Twitter
Fighter against drone; an important message for Israel in southern Syria, Fars News Agency
Iran and Hezbollah Avoid Blaming Israel for Terrorist Commander’s Death, The National Interest
Reports that many Iranians are taking deposits out of banks as toman currency drops to a historical low of 4,800 vis-a-vis the US dollar and rumors spread about banking sector collapse, FDD Iran, Twitter
Text of video says the user is a Basij member who has deployed to Iraq and Syria and is burning his membership cards after heard “the voice of people’s meekness.” Video then shows burning the cards. There’s been 10’s of such videos after #IranProtests broke out last month, FDD Iran, Twitter
Photo circulating of a man wearing the uniform of a Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) officer with the rank of LT COL holding sign that says “We the LEF personnel want the overthrow of the government of the mullahs,” FDD Iran, Twitter
The latest Iranian drone is revealed, Mehr News Agency