By Arab News
By S. Vipulananda
The main US military base in the Middle East has been put on high alert after an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down over Syria on Saturday, high-ranking sources told Arab News.
Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar is the forward HQ of US Central Command and a major US air base, with more than 11,000 US and US-led coalition troops and more than 100 aircraft.
“Israel is our closest security partner in the region and we fully support Israel’s inherent right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people,” Pentagon spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway said.
Israel struck what it said were Iranian targets inside Syria in large-scale raids on Saturday after it shot down an Iranian drone in Israeli airspace. The F-16 was returning from one of the raids when it crashed under fire from Syrian air defenses.
Saturday’s confrontation was the most serious between Israel and Iran since the civil war in Syria began in 2011.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called for restraint from all parties, and said it was “unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian soldiers” in Syria.Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus warned that Syria and Iran were “playing with fire,” but said his country was not seeking an escalation. “This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty in the last years,” Conricus said.
Saturday’s chain of events began at 4:30 a.m. (0230 GMT) when an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian drone over the northern town of Beit Shean. The drone had been sighted taking off from a base in Syria, and was intercepted after it crossed into Israeli territory, Conricus said.
Israeli planes then struck an Iranian installation in Syria from which the drone had been operated.
The Israeli military released grainy black and white footage of what it said was the drone’s control vehicle in Syria being destroyed. The F-16 crashed on its return from the mission, and came down in an empty field near Harduf, east of Haifa.
The pro-Assad military alliance said Israel had attacked a drone base in central Syria but denied any of its drones had entered Israeli air space. Iran rejected the Israeli version of events as “ridiculous” and said Syria has the right to self-defense in response to Israeli strikes.
Lebanon protested against Israel’s use of its airspace to target Syria, and said it would complain to the UN Security Council. Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry urged concerned countries to “rein in” Israel.
Israel called on the council to denounce Iran’s dispatching of a drone into Israeli territory.
On the ground in Syria, meanwhile, Assad regime forces were accused by UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein of carrying out “no-holds-barred” military offensives after a spike in violence left hundreds of civilians dead.
Calling for urgent international action to protect civilians, Al-Hussein also slammed what he called an “epic failure of global diplomacy” to end the war.
“The past week has been one of the bloodiest periods of the entire conflict, with wave after wave of deadly airstrikes leading to civilian casualties in areas of Eastern Ghouta and Idlib,” he said.
The condemnation came as a Turkish army helicopter was shot down by Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Unit) militias near the north Syrian town of Afrin and two soldiers on board died.