Feb. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Israel has a right to defend itself, after the country exchanged aerial fire with Iran and Syria over the weekend.
"Israel has an absolute right to defend itself, and I think that's what happened yesterday," Mattis said to reporters on Sunday.
"So when Syria, which has made no ... excuse for what they're doing alongside Iran, when they are providing throughout for Iran to give weapons, including more sophisticated weapons, to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israel has an absolute right to defend themselves."
Mattis' remarks followed a "large-scale attack" by Israel in Syria after a Syrian aircraft shot down an Israeli F-16 jet.
Officials said the attacks began after an Iranian drone infiltrated Israel's northern airspace from Syria. Israeli Defense Forces say the drone is in their possession.
In response, Israeli jets targeted the Tiyas Military Air Base in the Syrian province of Homs, where officials say the drone originated. Two crew members of an Israeli F-16 ejected before the missile struck the jet, while the jet crashed near Kibbutz Harduf in the Lower Galilee.
Mattis said IDF forces acted proactively to ensure the safety of their citizens.
"They don't have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue," he said.
Israel authorities are warning that Iran plans to establish a foothold on Israeli's northern border in anticipation of an attack on the Jewish state.
The Israeli government said Iran could use Syrian territory to plan attacks or use its foothold in Lebanon to transfer weapons more easily to the Lebanese Hezbollah -- an Iranian-backed militia group.
"If Iran continues to threaten and carry out offensive operations against Israel from Syria, Israel will teach Iran a lesson it will never forget," Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said.