Russia warns about jihadi anti-aircraft missiles after jet downed in Syria
Regional powers have supplied shoulder-fired missiles
The remains of a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet in Ma’saran village near Saraqeb city, in eastern Idlib, Syria. Photograph: Abdalla Saad/EPA
Russia warned on Monday that jihadi use of shoulder-fired missiles has become a serious hazard to aircraft overflying Syria following the downing on Saturday of a Russian warplane on patrol over al-Qaeda-controlled Idlib province. The pilot ejected and was killed during a firefight on the ground.
“We are extremely worried that terrorists have man-portable anti-aircraft missile systems in their possession. This is a huge danger to all states,” said Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov. He said 30 jihadis had been killed by Russian precision-guided missiles in strikes on the location from which the missile had been launched.
Russian lawmaker Viktor Vodolatsky said Syrian special forces operating with Russian air support are searching the area to retrieve the pilot’s body and collect evidence identifying the supplier of the weapon to groups that the UN brands “terrorist”.
The US has denied providing these arms (known as MANPADs) to opposition factions fighting in Syria, but regional powers with MANPADs in their arsenals have done so.
In retaliation for the downing of the jet, Russia has also intensified air-raids on Idlib city and towns and villages held by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of mainly al-Qaeda-affiliated fundamentalist factions responsible for destroying the aircraft.
Opposition sources claimed 15 people had breathing difficulties after a bomb containing chlorine was dropped by a Syrian helicopter on the town of Saraqeb, while 22 were killed in air strikes elsewhere in Idlib. Damascus has denied it uses chemical weapons. US secretary of defence James Mattis said the US has no proof to support opposition accusations that it does.
Russian air action and Syrian army offensives in Idlib province could complicate Russian and Iranian relations with Turkey, which – under a “deconfliction” zone agreement reached by these three powers – is meant to monitor opposition compliance with a ceasefire in Idlib, although groups attached to al-Qaeda have rejected any halt to hostilities.
The entry into Idlib of a 12-vehicle military convoy may signal Ankara could be preparing to tackle rejectionists.
Syrian government allies Moscow and Tehran and pro-opposition Ankara have attempted to establish four “deconfliction zones” as a prerequisite to negotiations on a political settlement. Two of these zones, however, remain hot – Idlib in the northwest and eastern Ghouta, from which jihadis fire missiles into Damascus. Two civilians were killed on Monday at an aid distribution centre at the Russian Orthodox Church.
Turkey appears to tolerate Russian and Syrian army operations in Idlib in exchange for Russian acquiescence in Ankara’s offensive, launched on January 20th, against Kurdish fighters in the Afrin border enclave. Ankara claims to have “neutralised” more than 900 Kurdish militiamen, whom it regards as “terrorists,” at a cost of 13 Turkish military fatalities.
Turkey seeks to oust Kurdish fighters from Afrin and put it under the administration of the rebel Free Syrian Army consisting of Arab irregulars, a plan certain to alienate Afrin’s Kurdish civilian majority and create a new hot area on Syria’s northern frontier with Turkey.