By James The Russian Analyst
A SU25 ground attack jet of the Russian Air Force was shot down near Saraqeb, Idlib province on Saturday, February 3. According to Russian Defense Ministry sources the ejecting pilot, Major Roman Filippov of Crimea, was killed by jihadists after he parachuted and tried to evade. The Al-Qaeda franchise Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) took credit for the shoot down, but the first group to post apparently authentic video of a SU25 getting hit by a man portable anti-aircraft missile (MANPAD) is Jaysh al-Nasr, aka the jihadist wing of the so-called 'Free Syrian Army' 'moderate rebels'. This led Russian Duma members and experts to point out that, in the most recent U.S. Defense Authorization Act, Congress officially permitted the supply of MANPADs to 'vetted' Syrian rebel groups. But in response to a question from TASS, a Pentagon spokesman denied that any MANPADs have been supplied to Syrian rebel groups.
However, Syria watchers took note on January 31 when the so-called 'National Army', remnants of the FSA and various jihadi groups now fighting under the Turkish Army's banners in Afrin, posed with a Soviet designed MANPAD system they allegedly captured from the Kurds. In retrospect the prominence of the MANPAD posing on social media by the Turkish proxies could have been staging for a planned shoot down near the Saraqeb front, where Russian airpower has been supporting the Syrian Arab Army. The apparent propaganda motive being, with hardcore neocon 'journalists' like #JihadiJulian Roepcke of Bild and Michael D. Weiss of CNN chiming in on Twitter, to claim that Turks and Russians are killing each other via proxies in northern Syria. Yet there is little evidence to support the claim that Moscow is currently supplying anti-tank missiles to the Afrin Kurds, of the type that just killed several Turkish servicemen in their armored vehicle this weekend. Instead it appears that someone is trying to set the mistrustful frenemies up for a clash, which many pro-Damascus Syrians regard as inevitable, once the Turks are finished fighing the Kurds and the SAA liberates the jihadist-dominated Idlib province.
“The Russian airman killed by militants in the Al-Nusra-controlled area in Idlib province Saturday was identified as Major Roman Filippov, photos posted on the Telegram channel of independent investigative group Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) indicate.
Earlier, the Russian Defense ministry confirmed that the pilot died “during combat with terrorists.”
One of the pictures, published on the CIT Facebook page, shows what appears to be a commendation authored by special operations air group commander Lt. Colonel Sergey Aksenov, recommending that a state award be bestowed upon Filippov for completing combat missions in Syria. CIT claims the document was found in the slain pilot’s pocket.
Another photo shows the gun Filippov apparently used to fight for his life. A Stechkin machine pistol (APS), standard issue for Russian combat pilots, is seen next to three magazines, one of them empty and two half-empty.”
Why is This Happening Now? Someone Is Trying to Bleed the Turks and Russians
It's noteworthy that despite tens of thousands of sorties, the Russian Air Force has suffered only its second jet loss of the war, after a SU24 bomber was ambushed and shot down by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015. While the SU25 is a ground attack aircraft designed in the Soviet Union to fly and fight at lower altitudes closer to the front lines, for two and a half years the jihadists were unable to shoot a RuAF plane down with both anti-aircraft guns mounted on flatbed trucks nor the limited supply of MANPADs they allegedly received funded by Saudi Arabia. The state-sponsored New Year's Day and Orthodox Christmas timed jihadi drone swarm attacks on Russia's Kheimmim air base outside Latakia allegedly destroyed multiple aircraft on the ground, yet only photos of a damaged SU24 appeared online as proof.
While a one time downing may indicate the jihadis simply got lucky and the former Ukrainian citizen Russian pilot's use of flares and maneuvering failed to throw off a heat seeking missile, it's also possible that the jihadists received more modern upgraded MANPADs from a certain former Soviet Bloc country (Ukraine, cough cough), paid for by Russia's deep state enemies. Certainly, the timing of the shoot down and the neocons unsurprising glee about it comes just days after the Russian security services chiefs of the FSB, SVR, and GRU (domestic, foreign and military intelligence) visited Washington to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation.
Meanwhile, in Afrin, Turkey's cynically named Operation 'Olive Branch' has run into more fierce resistance from the YPG Kurds than during the initial seizure of border towns. The jihadists Turkey supports were caught on video singing Al-Qaeda songs glorifying the jihad against the Russians in Chechnya and the Americans in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Another group of neo-Ottoman Syrian cannon fodder filmed themselves mutilating the body of a female YPG fighter. Still another group filmed themselves trashing a liquor store in a 'liberated' Kurdish town while aloha snackbaring.
Despite relying heavily on its bearded riff raff Syrian mercenaries to do most of the fighting, on Saturday Ankara's troops were met with a well aimed anti-tank missile shot that claimed the lives of at least seven Turkish servicemen. This attack happened after a significant Turkish Army convoy attempted a rapid advance to the town of Al-Eis through Al-Qaeda/HTS held territory, only to turn back when the Syrian Arab Army fired warning blasts of artillery fire and Russian Air Force strikes landed nearby. A vehicle born IED struck and destroyed a Turkish Army truck, claiming the life of at least two Turkish servicemen. The incident strongly suggests that, despite rumors that the Turks were basically abandoning support for their jihadist proxies not fighting directly along the anti-Kurdish Afrin axis, that Ankara and Damascus do not have a 'Afrin for Idlib' deal.
“The Turkish military has suffered the deadliest day in its offensive against Kurdish militias inside northern Syria, with seven soldiers killed.
Five of the troops died when their tank was attacked in the Afrin region.
PM Binali Yildirim vowed to make the militias “pay for this twice as much” and jets later struck Kurdish targets north-east of the city of Afrin.
Turkey’s “Olive Branch” operation was launched on 20 January to drive the Kurdish YPG militia out of Afrin.
Turkey views the YPG (People’s Protection Units) as a terrorist group and an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in south-eastern Turkey for three decades.
The military said in a statement that the US-backed YPG attacked the tank in Sheikh Haruz, north-east of Afrin city.
Two other soldiers were killed earlier, the military said, one in Afrin and another on the Turkish side of the border in an attack blamed on the YPG.
Turkey has now lost 14 soldiers in fierce clashes during the offensive.”
Where the Missiles Are Coming from Used to Kill Turkish Soldiers Invading Afrin
The usual pro-jihadi propagandists like Bellingcat's Eliot Higgins like to point out that both the MANPAD used to bring down the Russian jet and the anti-tank missile that killed the Turkish servicemen in or on their tank were Soviet designed and Russian made. However, not only have anti-tank missiles captured by the jihadists from the Syrian Arab Army and later seized by the YPG been used by the Kurds, but hundreds if not thousands of ATGMs were shipped into Syria for use by the rebels as part of the CIA-supported Saudi and Qatari arming program from 2012-2016. In other words, Turkey is suffering blowback from its own previous policies -- at least some of the weaponry now being used against Turks and their allies was hardware Erdogan turned a blind eye to or supported being shipped into Syria earlier.
The Syria jihadists' supporters on Twitter usually insist that every missile fired by the jihadis -- except for the American designed TOWs drawn from Saudi stocks -- has been 'seized from the regime' when in reality, many of these missiles were shipped into Syria through Turkey or Jordan from former Yugoslav and Eastern Bloc countries like Croatia and Bulgaria. Nonetheless, it is possible that many of the weapons Erdogan's government previously cooperated with the CIA and Saudis to ship into Syria for use against Assad's troops are now in YPG hands, having been liberated by the Kurds from ISIS who in turn got them via the al-CIA-eda cutouts of 'moderate vetted rebels'.
If 'blame Assad and the Russians' for Turkish losses in combat with the YPG is the neocons' propaganda gambit here, it doesn't appear to be working. Judging by the strongly patriotic sentiment Erdogan's government and state-friendly media have whipped up in Turkey, many Turks are blaming Uncle Sam for arming and training the Kurds rather than the Russians. Turks are well aware that to secure its own interests in Syria, Moscow maintains cordial relations with the YPG and invited their representatives to the Sochi conference for peace talks, yet Russia never became and never will be the Kurds superpower patron.
Greater Kurdistan is a distinctly American and Israeli project, which Damascus, the Turks, Iranians and most Iraqis all agree must be prevented. Therefore like just about every other neocon project the likes of Julian Roepcke and Michael Weiss have backed, the lets you Turks and Russians fight game is likely doomed to failure...at least for the foreseeable future. However, there is no sign Ankara is at the point of simply ordering the Americans out of Incirlik, despite many populists in Erdogan's ruling AKP coalition and the Turkish press demanding that NATO breaking step. The Turks also seem to have backed off their threats to march on Manbij and tell the American special forces based there to get the hell out of their way.
SAA Offensive Still Many Weeks or More Likely Months to Go Before Getting to Idlib
According to the Syria journalist who goes by the Russian handle Ivan Sidorenko, the Syrian Arab Army's elite Tiger Forces are well aware that their military advances may be slowed by the behind the scenes bargaining Moscow is facilitating between until very recently sworn enemies Damascus and Ankara. The SAA and especially its Iranian backed Hezbollah and allied miltias wish to press on to the besieged Shia cities of Foa and Kefraya, which have been desperately holding out against the jihadis thanks only to air dropped food and ammo supplies for a few years.
The fact that Turkey's Afrin offensive is drawing thousands of jihadists off the already thinly held lines in Idlib province, however, means the SAA can afford to be patient in encircling its enemies until the 'boilers' full of jihadis are all cooked. In this sense, the SAA and Turkish offensives are feeding off each other, and a recent Turkish attempt to send its troops to Al Eis represented a feeble effort to make up for the manpower drain on its jihadist allies.
Viewed from this perspective, Saturday's MANPAD shoot down of a Russian jet near Saraqeb where the jihadists are barely holding on under SAA pressure was likely intended as a delaying action, and to deter Russia from providing more direct fire support to the Tigers advance. If deterring the Russians from intensifying their air raids was the objective though, the operation failed, because the Russian Air Force and Navy responded by furiously pummeling the area near the crash with cluster munitions and a cruise missile strike. Nonetheless the Russian Air Force may have to operate for the foreseeable future at higher altitudes and perform more night strikes to avoid the MANPADs threat. Moscow's forces may also employ more heavy and rocket artillery in lieu of air strikes to displace the jihadis, with the Tiger Forces reportedly pressing their attack on Saraqeb's outskirts Sunday.
View image on Twitter
In late January chlorine gas munitions were used against the last rebel pocket in the Ghouta area east of Damascus. This attack was very similar to others that have taken place during the Syria war, in which jihadists have been caught manufacturing chlorine and mustard gas time and again, yet the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) insists only Damascus is capable of using sarin nerve agent. On Saturday the Syrian government rejected the latest U.S. allegations of gassing its own people, blaming terrorist groups for staging the chemical attacks to give Washington another pretext to attack the SAA:
“The Syrian government on Saturday rejected U.S. allegations that it had used chemical weapons to attack rebel-held Eastern Ghouta last month.
In a statement to the Syrian state-run news agency SANA, the Syrian foreign ministry denied that it had used chemical weapons on its own people, and insisted that it had turned its chemical weapons stockpile over to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The ministry also accused the U.S. of fabricating the claims and of backing “terrorist groups” responsible for chemical attacks in the region.
The foreign ministry’s denial came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis accused the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad of repeatedly using chlorine gas to attack rebel-held parts of Syria.
Mattis also said on Friday that the U.S. government was concerned about the Syrian government’s use of sarin gas, but acknowledged that he did not have evidence to prove that it was using the nerve agent. He said that nongovernmental organizations and fighters on the ground in Syria had reported sarin use, and that the U.S. was looking into the matter.
Washington said this week that it could consider military action against the Syrian government if it continued to use chemical weapons. Mattis hinted at such action on Friday, referencing a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian military airfield last year. ”
Given Turkey's increasing alienation from its NATO allies and Russian determination to see through their successful campaign to bolster the legitimate Syrian government, another cruise missile strike on Syrian forces is unlikely to make any difference in the final settlement of the war. For Washington, the era of victories achieved on the cheap and especially Libya style regime changes using jihadist proxies is over, and the only question is whether neocons in the Trump Administration and Congress can cope with this Russian and Chinese ushered in end to the unipolar world. The newly announced national security policy and re-emphasis on nuclear weapons in Pentagon doctrine suggests the hardliners are far from giving up strategies of confrontation, which could include disavowed support for groups like HTS/AlQaeda/ISIS/USUS or the Kurdish PKK which the U.S. officially labels terrorist.