Did Syria down an Israeli F-16?
Separating fact from fiction with competing claims
On September 13, Syrian government sources claimed that it downed both an Israeli F-16 jet and unspecified drone in the countryside of Quneitra in the Golan Heights. Syrian sources claim that the shootdown took place during an overnight bombing run, during which “two surface-to-air missiles were launched from Syria after the mission overnight to target Syrian artillery positions,” per Syrian military spokesperson Arye Shalicar. Syrian state news agency SANA provided additional details when they stated that the downing took place at 1am (local time) in the southern countryside of Quneitra, while the Syrian Armed Forces have claimed that it took place at 1:30am. Israel has refuted these claims, and while it confirmed that Syrian forces did fire surface-to-air missiles, “IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] aircraft were not harmed.” One of the first reports of a Syrian surface-to-air missile launch came at 1:32am local time, matching the reports from Syrian sources:
It is still too early to know with 100% certainty who is telling the truth and if an Israeli F-16 and/or drone were indeed downed by Syrian forces; however, we can collect, verify, and analyze various claims and evidence that have made their way online.
Verifying the central claims of the Syrian and Israeli militaries with complete certainty is still not possible, but there have been materials posted online presented as evidence that can be refuted and put into context. One such example comes from the Twitter account @Echelon_Defense, which presents itself as a “newly established defense & security news outlet.” This “news outlet” is not off to a sterling start after sharing fake materials supposedly showing Syrian air defense downing an Israeli F-16. The tweet has been archived here.
A quick reverse image search on Google reveals that this photograph is quite old, and was shared in 2014 on the F-16.net message board.
Note that in the tweet from Echelon Defense, the watermarks differ — a new one is on the top-left of the tweeted photo, while another appears on the message board photograph. This image has been kicked around online for years, and in one iteration is attributed to June 8, 1982 and Operation Mole Cricket 19. One thing is certain— it does not show a September 13, 2016 downing of an Israeli F-16.
Another image that has surfaced shows a young man on top of what appears to be part of a missile, with the word “Meso” in red next to him.
The image description claims that this is part of an S200 missile. It is difficult to give a positive identification of the part, but the object does seem to be a rocket booster for an S200 missile. An S200 missile comes with multiple rocket boosters, each of which detaches after its fuel is expended. Unlike the tweet that shows an image over 30 years old, this photograph of a rocket booster cannot be matched with a previously shared photograph. Additionally, there are no landmarks in the photograph that can be geolocated, outside of a vague mountain range in the background. If this photograph was indeed taken on September 13 in the Quneitra countryside, it would neither prove nor disprove the Israeli and Syrian positions, as both sides agree that anti-aircraft missiles were fired. The question, which is not answered by the discovery of a spent rocket booster, is if the missile managed to hit an aircraft or drone.
A blurry, dark video was shared on September 13, possibly showing an event related to the disputed shootdown.
According to many sharing this video, it shows a surface-to-air missile hit on the left part of the screen from the night of September 12 or early morning of September 13. There seems to be some sort of impact, but it is impossible to parse meaningful details from the 4-second video. In the background, barely discernible conversation can be heard in Arabic, including someone saying “come on” and another person saying the word “carried.” There are no clues from this conversation related to the date, content, or relevance of the video.
As of yet, there have been no verifiable videos or photographs of wreckage from a downed Israeli F-16, or other aircraft. The photographs and videos of the shootdown that have appeared on social media are either unverifiable or over 30 years old. With most true downings, such as the Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24 jet, photographs and videos will quickly appear showing the wreckage, any casualties, and smoke rising from the distance — for instance, see the Conflict Intelligence Team’s analysis of the wealth of materials surrounding the Turkish-Russian incident. However, with the Syrian “shootdown” of an Israeli F-16 and drone, the only verified fact is that at least one surface-to-air missile was fired in the early hours of September 13 during or immediately after an Israeli bombing run. Until verifiable materials come to light, all other claims of this shootdown should be treated with suspicion.