Syrian rebels may have used surface-to-air missiles to bring down a government helicopter this week, a development that could alter the balance of power in the country’s north.
Footage posted online appeared to show a shoulder-fired missile being used to down a Mi-17 military helicopter in Idlib on Tuesday, amid heavy fighting between rebels and Russian-backed government forces.
A group of Syrian rebel fighters is seen celebrating the downing of the aircraft, but it is unclear who fired the missile and the video could not be independently verified.
The Turkish military is currently on the ground in the province and it is possible its troops may have handled the weapon on behalf of rebel groups it supports.
If confirmed, the use or supply of the missiles to target Syrian government aircraft would mark a further escalation in the multi-faceted war. The successful use of such weaponry may inhibit the Syrian government’s ability to use attack helicopters on rebel-held towns and villages. Indeed, already in the days following the incident, some activists reported a drop in government air attacks in Idlib.
Throughout the course of the nearly nine-year conflict, foreign backers of Syrian rebel groups have tried to restrict the delivery of the missiles – also known as man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) – over concerns that they may fall into the hands of terror groups, who could use them to bring down civilian airliners.
Turkey backs a number of rebel groups inside Syria who are currently fighting alongside the jihadist Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, a former affiliate of Al Qaeda, which has been the target of US airstrikes.
In the past, the US has urged its allies to restrict the delivery of MANPADS to Syrian rebels. They have been used by rebel fighters a number of times, however. In 2018, a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 was shot down using the missile system over Idlib.
The downing of the helicopter comes amid the most serious clashes between Turkish forces and Syrian government troops in the course of the entire conflict.
Syrian troops launched a new push in December to recapture the last rebel-held bastion of Idlib, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee.
In recent days, the renewed push has brought Syrian troops into direct confrontation with Turkey. Thirteen Turkish military personnel have been killed by Syrian government shelling in the past 10 days. Turkey claimed to have killed 52 Syrian soldiers in response, and the country’s president vowed more reprisals if any more Turkish troops were harmed.
"If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib's borders," president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
"We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating, without allowing for any stalling," he added.
Charles Lister, director of the Countering Terrorism & Extremism program at the Middle East Institute, said the use of MANPADS may signal a more muscular approach from Turkey towards the current crisis in Idlib.
"It’s possible, or even most likely, that the MANPADS used was already in theatre and wasn’t a recent gift from the Turks, but that’s frankly academic. Amid rumours and threats, a Syrian aircraft was shot down," he told The Independent.
"That by itself contributes towards Turkish efforts to insert some more meaningful deterrence amid an environment in which it, and the opposition, have struggled to maintain much control or influence."
In recent days, Turkey has appealed to Russia to halt the Syrian government offensive. On Thursday, the Turkish defence minister said his country’s military would target rebel groups that violated a ceasefire in Idlib.
"Force will be used against those violating the ceasefire, including radicals, and every measure will be taken," Hulusi Akar said, referring to a 12 January ceasefire Ankara says has been violated by Assad's forces.
Ankara has deployed more than 1,000 troops to its military posts in Idlib since last week.
On Wednesday, Mr Erdogan said Ankara had given a message to the rebels it supports in the conflict to refrain from acting in an "undisciplined" way and give Syrian forces an excuse to strike.
The rebels are a mix of nationalist factions and Islamist militants who have had deadly rivalries but are now closing ranks.
Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides, but have collaborated on a political solution to the war.
— With agencies