SUN 18 - 2 - 2018
Feb 14, 2018
The Daily Star
Damascus warns Israel of ‘surprises’ in Syria
DAMASCUS/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel will face “more surprises” should it again attack Syrian territory, Damascus said Tuesday, after Syria’s air defenses shot down an advanced Israeli warplane during the fiercest flare-up between the old foes in 36 years. The F-16 jet was hit over northern Israel Saturday as it returned from a raid on a Syrian position blamed for launching an Iranian-made drone across the border. Iran is supporting President Bashar Assad in Syria’s near 7-year-old civil war.
“Have full confidence the aggressor will be greatly surprised, because it thought this war – this war of attrition Syria has been exposed to for years – had made it incapable of confronting attacks,” Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan said.
“God willing, they will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria,” Soussan said during a Damascus news conference.
The downed F-16 was the first warplane Israel has lost to enemy fire since its 1982 Lebanon war.
Its two-man crew survived, with injuries, after bailing out of the stricken jet.
Israel retaliated by destroying around half of Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries, according to an assessment shared with Reuters by an Israeli official who requested anonymity.
Israel has said it will press ahead with missions in Syria, where it has launched scores of sorties against suspected arms transfers to Hezbollah.
“There are no limitations, and nor do we accept any limitations,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon.
“We will continue to defend our vital security and other interests. And I would like to paraphrase the well-known saying: ‘This is not the time to bark, this is the time to bite.’”
Tehran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel. It has also accused Iran of building precision-guided missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Syria and Hezbollah celebrated the F-16 shoot-down as a blow to Israeli military superiority.
Israel’s Army Radio said Tuesday that investigators believed pilot error – rather than Syrian capabilities – were mainly at fault for the F-16’s failure to evade what was probably an aged SA-5 missile.
An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on that report, saying the investigation was ongoing.
Saturday’s incident stirred up further questions in Israel about the effectiveness of a coordination mechanism set up with Russia, which has also been reinforcing and arming Assad’s army.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the flare-up by urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid escalation in Syria. Moscow said Monday that it did not have information to support Israel’s allegation about an Iranian military presence in the site bombed for launching the drone.
Separately, Assad’s government Tuesday rejected efforts led by the United Nations to form a committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution, the main result of a peace congress among Syrian groups in Russia.
“As a state, we are not bound by, nor have any relation with, any committee that is not Syrian formed, led and constituted,” Soussan said at the news conference in Damascus.
“We are not bound by anything that is formed by foreign sides, whatever their name or state, we are not bound by it and it is of no concern to us,” he added.
Participants at the Sochi congress, a centerpiece of diplomatic efforts by Damascus’ ally Russia to end the war, agreed on Jan. 30 to set up the constitutional committee in Geneva, and to hold democratic elections in Syria.
U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said at Sochi that he would decide the criteria for committee members and select about 50 people from government, opposition and independent groups.
The main opposition negotiating group, which boycotted the Sochi meeting, said afterward that it would cooperate with the formation of a constitutional committee so long as it would be under U.N. auspices.
In other developments, meanwhile, shells hit the center of the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, where Turkey is carrying out an offensive, landing near the area’s only hospital and killing one person, the hospital manager and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The shelling near Afrin hospital is the first time the district’s center has been targeted since Turkey began its offensive, now in its fourth week. It left five civilians wounded, including two in critical condition.
Turkey has sent in troops, lobbed artillery from across the border and used airstrikes in its operation in the Afrin enclave to rout the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Defense Units or the YPG. Ankara has also backed thousands of Syrian local fighters who are taking part in its ground operation in Afrin.
Jiwan Mohammad, the Afrin hospital manager, said the attack disrupted baby deliveries, cut an electricity cable feeding one hospital section and sent panicked patients and staff to the streets.
Two other shells, which he said came from the Turkey-backed forces in the east, landed in other parts of Afrin town.
The violence also killed two women in Afrin enclave Tuesday, the Observatory said. Tuesday’s deaths bring the total casualties since Jan. 20 to 77, including 21 children, according to the Observatory.
Mohammad puts the death toll much higher, saying his hospital records show at least 157 civilians have died in the offensive, while over 400 were wounded. The discrepancy couldn’t be immediately reconciled.
Turkey says at least 31 of its soldiers were killed in the operation so far.
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