Idlib rebels shoot down Syrian government plane as regime troops gain ground
July 3, 2020
Rebels in Syria have shot down a government warplane in the opposition stronghold of Idlib province on Wednesday as regime forces closed in on a strategically important town.
The plane had been hit by an anti-aircraft missile fired by militants while on a mission "to destroy headquarters of the Nusra Front", a jihadist group now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), according to state news agency Sana.
Jihadists from HTS, the most powerful insurgent group in the area, released a video of what it said was a downed Sukhoi 22 jet.
They also released a video of captured pilot Lt Col General Mohammad Ahmad Sleiman from the 70th Brigade who had ejected from the plane before it crashed.
Footage shows SU-22 ejector seat and parachute, discarded flight helmet of downed pilot over S. #Idlib. He has so far escaped capture, #HTS says search continues. pic.twitter.com/Mb11Ymat57
— Riam Dalati (@Dalatrm) August 14, 2019
While the downing of regime planes by rebels is rare, there have been several recorded incidents over the course of the eight-year-war.
Despite the latest, pro-government forces have been making ground in the offensive on Idlib after months struggling to make gains.
Government forces seized new ground from rebels near the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun on Wednesday, advancing to within a few miles.
Khan Sheikhoun, which has been under opposition control since 2014 and was the site of a sarin gas attack in 2017, lies on the M5 highway, an important artery which links Aleppo to the capital Damascus.
"Regime forces are now four kilometres (2.5 miles) from Khan Sheikhun to the west, with nothing between them and it but fields," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdel Rahman.
Analysts suggested that government forces aimed not only to retake the road running through Idlib, but also pile pressure on HTS and allied rebels to submit.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the latest push in recent days.
AFP correspondents have reported seeing families heading north in trucks piled high with belongings.
A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region’s three million inhabitants from an all-out regime offensive, but it was never fully implemented.