Damascus (GPA) – A Russian jet was shot down above the Idlib deescalation zone over the weekend by rebels connected to Al Qaeda.
Saturday afternoon saw the downing of a Russian Su-25 by Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel group tied to the Turkish-backed faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as elements of the Al-Qaeda affiliate Tahrir al-Sham. This group has largely been the focus of Russian and Syrian forces looking to lift the occupation of Idlib.
The jet was struck by a missile fired from a Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPAD), a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapon. While the origin of this MANPAD used to take down the jet is unknown, the shipment of these kinds of offensive weapons was authorized by the Obama Regime in late 2016, angering Russia due to the risk posed to their jets which carry out most airstrikes in support of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
According to a statement by Russia’s Defense Ministry, after the jet was struck by the rebels the pilot ejected before the plane hit the ground. The ejection was a success and the pilot got away unscathed but was later engaged by the terrorists and died fighting them off.
Later in the day, Russia launched several bombing operations in retaliation which Moscow says took out over 30 Jahbat al-Nusra militants around Idlib.
Idlib is supposed located within one of the de-escalation zones guaranteed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Turkey is supposed to be the guarantor of this agreement in Idlib and is technically responsible for the actions of rebels in the region due to their role as a communications channel between Syria’s allies and the terrorists.
While Turkey’s current focus is the fight against US-backed Kurdish militias in Afrin, a city about 85km (52m) north of Idlib, Turkish troops still remain in the area as a part of the de-escalation agreements. Some of the Turkish backed militants have also moved north to aid in the Afrin offensive as well but clearly, enough stayed behind to cause trouble.
The Turkish Connection
Tahrir al-Sham may have taken credit for the downing of the Russian plane but there is also a broader context with some ugly implications when you examine the complex system of alliances between the militants in Idlib.
Tahrir al-Sham was formed in January of last year and is comprised of elements of groups such as Ansar al-Din Front, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq but most importantly: Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is the group formerly known as Jabhat Al-Nusra which is the designated representative of Al-Qaeda in Syria.
There is obviously no state actor that would openly support this group and Turkey is no exception to that rule, denying providing any direct support to Tahrir al-Sham. This could be true but there is still the problem of allied groups connected to Tahrir al-Sham do have a direct connection and public relations with Ankara.
These relations were on full display shortly before the Turkish offensive in Afrin, when the Turkish Foreign Ministry allegedly summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors to discuss “crimes against rebels in Idlib.” These rebels which Turkey claims publicly are a part supposedly just their faction of the FSA and some more moderate allies but the FSA in this area is also affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham.
Following the downing of the Russian jet earlier today it was these segments of the FSA and their allies that distributed both the video of the jet being shot down but also official statements of responsibility from Tahrir al-Sham. These groups have also released photos in the past showing off Turkish military equipment as we have previously reported.
One such example of a Turkish-backed FSA faction that clearly has no problem affiliating with Tahrir Al-Sham is the group Jaysh al-Nasr (Army of Victory) which distributed the video below on their YouTube channel. This group was among those “vetted” by the west and their allies and was an earlier recipient of US anti-tank TOW missiles.
All of these connections are publicly displayed showing a clear connection between Turkey and elements of Al Qaeda. Ankara may deny direct support for groups such as Tahrir al-Sham but the connections between these two can easily be made through only one layer of separation.