JERUSALEM – The Israeli military said it struck and destroyed an anti-aircraft battery deep in Syria on Monday after it had opened fire on Israeli jets flying over Lebanon – a rare incident of Syrian forces targeting Israeli planes since the civil war began in 2011.
The strike came as Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, was visiting Israel. Moscow is one of the staunchest supporters of the Syrian government and Russian forces have helped President Bashar Assad’s troops score significant victories in the war.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Israeli planes were on a routine reconnaissance mission near the Lebanese-Syrian border when they came under fire. They were not hit and returned to base safely.
In response, Israel hit a Syrian anti-aircraft battery about 30 miles east of Damascus and “incapacitated” it, he said. Anti-aircraft fire has been deployed before against Israeli jets since the civil war began in 2011, but it is rare.
In March, Syria fired missiles at Israeli warplanes on a mission to destroy a weapons convoy destined for the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, prompting Israel to deploy its missile defense system.
Russian forces in Syria were notified in real time, Conricus said, adding that Israel holds Syria responsible for any attack from its territory.
Israel has largely stayed out of the fighting in neighboring Syria but it has carried out dozens of airstrikes on alleged weapons convoys bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has also occasionally carried out limited reprisals along its frontier with Syria in the Golan Heights, after spillover of Syria’s fighting.
Conricus said Israel has no interest in destabilizing the situation but says the military will “preserve our ability to act and thwart” any hostile activity against it.
“Our policy is clear. Whoever tries to harm us, we harm them,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “Today they (Syrian military) tried to hit our planes – that is not acceptable. The air force acted quickly and precisely and destroyed what it needed to destroy.”
The Syrian army denounced the Israeli strike as a hostile act and said in a statement that the Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace from the direction of eastern Lebanon.
“The General Command of the Army and Armed Forces warns of the dangerous repercussions of these repeated hostile attempts by Israel,” the Syrian military said.
Visiting Russian Defense Minister Shoygu was received in a military ceremony later Monday, ahead of meetings with senior Israeli officials.
Israel and Russia have established a special mechanism to prevent friction between their air forces in Syria, officials said.
Israel has long identified Iran as its biggest threat, citing its suspect nuclear program, development of long-range missiles and hostile rhetoric. But gains by Syrian troops and their Iranian-backed allies have given those concerns new urgency.
Israel fears the establishment of a Shiite “corridor,” with land links from Iran to Lebanon, allowing the movement of fighters and weapons across the region. At the heart of those fears is Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that battled Israel to a stalemate in a monthlong war in 2006 in which it fired thousands of rockets at Israel.
The group has greatly beefed up its arsenal of rockets and missiles since then, and after years of fighting in Syria, is more battle-tested than ever.