Russia Mounts intensive Syria Air Campaign in Response to Downed Jet

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Russian side of the story, presented in the Syrian press, is that an al-Qaeda-linked group in Idlib, a northwestern province of Syria, used a shoulder-mounted missile launcher to shoot down a Russian fighter jet. The pilot ejected and landed, but then was attacked by ground forces of the Syrian Conquest Front (Nusra Front). He put up a fight, refusing to surrender, and was killed.

Turkey and those rebel groups in contact with Russia are working to retrieve the pilot’s body.

Russia claims to have killed 30 SCF fighters in an intense bombardment campaign in Idlib, in response to the shootdown.

So here are the questions that come out of this incident:

1. Where did the al-Qaeda-linked guerrillas get a shoulder-mounted missile launcher sophisticated enough to shoot down a fighter jet? (The US Pentagon is denying being the source).

2. Will this incident impel Russia to support a major Idlib campaign to defeat Nusra/ the Syrian Conquest Front entirely? The de-escalation zone announced for Idlib has broken down, with a major Syrian-Russian push in southeast Idlib that has caused the displacement of some 150,000 civilians. The SCF was never part of that agreement because the Russians consider it a terrorist organization with links to terrorists in the Muslim parts of the Russian Caucasus. But the SCF took over most of Idlib, attacking other fundamentalist guerrilla groups in the process. That combination of facts has rendered the idea of a truce in the province a dead letter. The writing on the wall is that the Russians, the regime and the Shiite militias will eventually try to take Idlib, one of the few remaining pockets of resistance to Damascus.

3. Does the Syrian Conquest Front/ Nusra Front have more such missiles? If the Russian Aerospace Forces start suffering more casualties and some pilots are taken hostage, will it affect Russian public opinion regarding the long and very expensive Russian war in Syria?


Bonus video:

AFP: “Images of the Russian plane downed in Syria”

9 Responses

  1. Also in the article Dr Cole references, ‘experts’ are quoted saying the plane was at a high altitude when hit and the weapon likely to have been a Stinger missile. The US, not so long ago, was supposed to have provided such weapons to the Syrian Kurds and to the “Free Syrian Army” although the Pentagon denies it.

    Originally a Stinger would have come from the US because that is where they are made, but they have been around a long time and are all over the place. You can actually buy them online (Google ‘Stinger Missile for sale’) so tracing the source of a particular weapon could be difficult to say the least. However, Russian/Turkish Intelligence may be able to uncover the last leg of its journey. A betting man might lay a wager on Israel.

    • The Central Intelligence Agency had successfully defeated the USSR in Afghanistan by supplying Afghan rebels in the 1980s with the Stinger anti-aircraft missile – as well as anti-tank rockets. After the Marxist government in Kabul fell, the Americans realized that they had a problem and initiated Operation MIAS in which the CIA created a 10 million-dollar fund to buy back those Stingers from Afghan rebel warlords.

      The bottom line is that the only way the Syrian Arab Army and its allied forces can be defeated is with substantial quantities of anti-aircraft and and anti-tank missiles in rebel hands. The Free Syrian Army has received TOW anti-tank missiles and to the extent they may have been supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, this will enhance their chances at defeating the Baathists on the battlefield – despite the potential danger of those weapons being eventually used against U.S. interests.

      Hezbollah’s effective deterrent against Israel Defense Forces incursions that has existed since the 2006 Second Lebanon War has been largely due to their ability to successsfully deploy both anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile batteries – as well as Chinese-developed Silkworm guided naval missiles – during fighting in that war.

      Israel has been known to give assistance to al-Nusra Front rebels in Syria – but there has been no confirmation of Israel supplying that al-Qaeda affiliate with Stingers.

  2. I can imagine the US reaction if Russia started slipping sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to the Taliban. Which, in a way, would be payback for the US supplying such weapons to the mujahadeen in the 1980s.

  3. The Syrian Arab Army with the help of Russia and their allies have within 6 weeks taken almost a third of the area of the Idlib pocket, which actually included parts of Hama and Aleppo provinces. Clearly the more population-rich places and Idlib City still have to be taken, but that’s clearly the direction where things are moving. The internet has a lot of stories about local populations welcoming the Syrian Army and being relieved that the Al Qaeda-linked rebels are gone. You are talking about 150,000 displaced people, and it would be interesting to know more about where these people are going, towards government-held areas or towards rebel-controlled areas.

    Certainly the Russians are going to deeply investigate the first question and will try to punish those responsible. In the recent past the US has not been a unified actor, even if the Pentagon was not the source, that does not mean that the CIA or other rogue / deep state parts of the US government were not involved. Other intelligence services in the region may also be involved, but we will probably never find out. Anyway the timing shortly before the Russian presidential elections is interesting. Apparently the Russian pilot fought to his death rather than be captured alive and is being celebrated as a hero. Looks like Russia remains undeterred for now. Perhaps one also needs to keep in mind that the largest loss of life Russia has taken during the Syria engagement was the bombing of the Russian airliner (which took off from Egypt) which resulted in 224 dead only a month after the start of Russia’s operations in Syria. I am sure the Russian government will consider this in weighing whether to see the war in Syria all the way to the end.

    • A U.N. investigator is looking into reports of recent chlorine gas deployment in Idlib and East Ghouta by the Syrian Arab Army and describing the putative conduct as constituting war crimes.

      The Russian pilot, Roman Filipov, reportedly blew himself up with a hand grenade after engaging in a gun battle with rebels in Idlib province. His body was repatriated for burial in Russia.

  4. .
    there are probably 15 different countries who have the capability to produce such weapons.

    generally these weapons only work out to about 5 to 7 miles,
    so that the effects can be controlled.
    Anything flying above 25,000 ft is probably safe.

    After the operator actuates the weapon, the more sophisticated ones first lock on to a specific target,
    then they contact the target to ask if it is friendly,
    and only then does the missile launch.
    Generally, unless modified, a Russian SA-18 will not shoot down a Sukhoi aircraft.

  5. The anti-air missile was a Russian-made Igla, which HTS captured from the regime at some point. The only anti-air missiles in the hands of any rebels are captured (or smuggled), because the US govt. put the CIA on the Turkish and Jordanian borders in 2012 to block any parties from supplying manpads to the FSA (let alone to Islamists, to whom the US blocked all weapons). The CIA also blocked anti-tank weapons for over two years. The hysteria above about the idea of the US supplying HTS with manpads is light years away from the reality. Actually, the US spent most of the last three years bombing Nusra, hundreds of times, including the botched hit in March this year when it killed 57 worshippers in an Idlib mosque.

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