Pilot killed as Russian jet shot down by Syrian rebels
Raf Sanchez, Middle East correspondent
Syrian rebels shot down a Russian warplane for the first time on Saturday and Russia’s defence ministry said the pilot was killed as he resisted capture by jihadists.
The Su-25 was destroyed over the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib as it provided air support to pro-Assad regime forces attacking the city of Saraqeb.
Video footage showed the Russian jet manoeuvring over Idlib and then a parachute emerging after it was hit.
“The pilot had enough time to announce he had ejected into the zone, under the control of al-Nusra Front fighters,” the Russian defence ministry said, referring to a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda. “The pilot was killed in fighting against terrorists.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), also said the pilot was killed as he resisted being taken captive. But several opposition activists claimed he was already dead by the time rebel fighters reached him and he appeared to have died during ejection.
A photograph circulated by rebel groups showed a bloodied corpse wearing a white uniform.
The pilot was not officially identified but a Russian letter reportedly found on his body recommended that a Major Roman Fillipov Nikolaevich be awarded for his role during the Syrian campaign.
— Michael A. Horowitz (@michaelh992) February 3, 2018
No group immediately claimed credit for bringing down the Russian jet but a number of rebel factions are operating in the area, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is linked to al-Qaeda.
Rebels have successfully shot down Syrian regime jets in the past but Saturday marked the first time that a Russian warplane was brought down by opposition ground fire.
In August 2016, a Russian military helicopter was shot down over Syria and all five people on board were killed.
Orient News, an opposition media outlet, claimed that the jet was shot down with an Igla anti-aircraft missile, a shoulder-fired weapon which can be carried by a single man.
The rebels have been known to use such weapons, known as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) in the past, but it is not clear who would have supplied them.
Western countries have long been wary of supplying rebels with MANPADS for fear they would fall into jihadist hands and could one day be used against Western civilian or military aircraft.
Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at the Le Beck geopolitical consultancy, said the shoot down was not “a game changer” as the Su-25 flies low in support of ground troops and is therefore vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.
“On the tactical level it could change things because the Russian are probably not going to use the Su-25 as much. But on the strategic level I don’t think it’s going to change anything it terms of military balance even in this specific area.
“The offensive will probably continue and pro-regime forces will probably be able to continue to advance on Saraqeb,” he said.
Russia has been fighting in Syria since September 2015 and its intervention has decisively swung the tides of war in favour of the Assad regime.
The regime has also benefited from support by Iran and its proxy the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah.