Israel estimates that it destroyed nearly half of Syria's air defense system in a retaliatory air force sortie after one of its F-16 fighter jets was shot down by a Syrian missile, according to a military assessment provided to local news media Sunday.
The fighting broke out Saturday after an Iranian drone, launched from a site controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, flew into Israeli airspace.
Israel said it hit eight Syrian army targets and four Iranian sites in Syria, including an Iranian command trailer at the so-called T4 base, near the ancient city of Palmyra, from which the drone was launched early Saturday. Israeli Apache helicopters downed the drone, and four F-16 jets were dispatched into Syrian territory to bomb the site from which it was launched.
One Israeli F-16 was hit by Syrian fire as it returned to Israel from the mission, leading to the massive Israeli retaliation.
The deputy commander of Israel's air force, Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, said Saturday that Israel's aerial reprisal was "the biggest and most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses" since the 1982 Lebanon War.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tweeted Sunday that at least "six members of the regime [of President Bashar Assad] and its allies of Syrian and non-Syrian nationalities" were killed in the Israeli bombing. Non-Syrian is a reference to Iranians.
The Israeli pilot and navigator ejected from their plane after it was hit by shrapnel from a Syrian antiaircraft missile, and they survived. The plane crashed in northern Israel, next to a Galilean high school that was empty early on a Saturday morning.
Iran denied that its drone had strayed into Israeli airspace. "The Zionists' claims have always been incorrect and this time is no different," Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmayeeli told reporters in Tehran on Sunday, according to Iran's Fars News Agency.
At the start of a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers that Israel had "dealt severe blows to the armed forces of Iran and Syria."
"We made it unequivocally clear to everyone that our rules of action have not changed one bit; we will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us. This has been our policy and it will remain our policy," he said.
The initial investigation indicates that the Israeli jet that was shot down maintained a high altitude in order to verify that the missiles fired at the Iranian control trailer hit their target. That allowed Syria's air defense systems to identify the plane and launch more than 20 missiles. The volleys of Syrian weapons were visible to Israelis in the north of the country, some of whom later posted videos of the attack and of the F-16 engulfed in flames.
Speaking at a ceremonial exchange of commanders Sunday, the chief of Israel's Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, said that Iran, which has built several military bases in Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war seven years ago, aims to establish a "forward command post in Syria," an aim Israel cannot permit.
He cautioned that "whoever crosses the line will face the proper response."
The Israeli pilot and navigator were wounded but are expected to recover. After visiting them Sunday at a hospital in Haifa, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said: "We constantly warn our friends in the world who think they can reach an arrangement with Iran. As far as we are concerned, we are not only talking about a nuclear danger, but also about a state that supports terrorism."