For the first time in the Syrian civil war, the rebels appear to have shot down one of the regime’s jets, a small but important victory in a conflict that has seen the government’s dominance of airspace give it a decisive edge.
Grainy video showed a MiG fighter burst into a fireball over the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Monday, and rebels claimed that the aircraft was brought down by their machine guns or, possibly, a shoulder-mounted missile.
The government denied the rebel claim, saying the jet malfunctioned, but those denials were undermined later in the day as rebels posted video of a bruised man who identified himself as the MiG pilot who ejected before the plane exploded.
The authenticity of the rebel videos could not be confirmed, but they suggest a change of complexion in a war that until now has featured government pilots targeting rebels with little fear of military or diplomatic consequences.
Losing control of the skies has historically marked the beginning of the end for many governments that lost wars against insurgent forces, from Afghanistan to Libya.
Syria’s government has used its airspace to strike deep inside rebel enclaves. A MiG fighter was part of a bloody offensive around the northern city of Aleppo on Monday, and an AFP correspondent saw the jet swooping low on strafing runs, but any consistent anti-aircraft capability in rebel hands could deter such low-altitude manoeuvres.
Hints that the rebels were gaining surface-to-air firepower emerged on July 31 when NBC News reported that rebels were smuggling missiles across the border from Turkey. A rebel Facebook posting later showed a smiling young man holding what appeared to be a SA-7 missile, a crude Soviet-style weapon first manufactured in the 1960s.
A rebel source confirmed for The Globe and Mail that the Syrian opposition has obtained SA-7 missiles, but cautioned that such weapons remain extremely rare in rebel stockpiles and have not been sufficient to stop the regime’s air attacks. Nor have the missiles been distributed to all of Syria’s major rebel enclaves, the source added, suggesting that the devices may not have reached rebels in Deir Ezzor.
The SA-7, also known as Strela-2, is a heat-seeking ancestor of more modern devices such as the Stinger missile; depending on the SA-7 model used by Syria’s rebels, the missiles may be vulnerable to flares and other defenses used by regime aircraft.
The 14.5-millimetre heavy machine guns used by Syrian rebels are also capable of bringing down government jets, in the rare event that a gunner catches one of the fast-moving planes in his sights.
Syrian rebels have been asking Western countries for more modern anti-aircraft weaponry, but so far the United States and Britain have pledged only non-lethal assistance. Opposition groups are also calling for a no-fly zone that would protect key cities from government air strikes, an idea that gained currency on Sunday when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the issue needs “greater in-depth analysis.”
When asked about Ms. Clinton’s comments on Monday, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to speculate about what she meant, only repeating the administration’s long-standing position that no options should be excluded in Syria.
The downed plane may also serve as a bellwether of morale in Syria’s beleaguered armed forces, rebels say. Opposition websites buzzed with unconfirmed reports that the MiG pilot who survived the crash was an airport manager – not a regular pilot – which may suggest that he was selected for the mission because of his loyalty, not piloting skill. In June, a Syrian fighter pilot flew a MiG into neighbouring Jordan and requested asylum.
So far, the regime appears to have largely maintained control over its own extensive stockpiles of surface-to-air missiles. Unlike the former Libyan government, whose arsenals were raided by rebels in the early days of the uprising in that country, the Syrian regime has a more centralized system of weapons storage. Damascus is believed to hold stockpiles that include thousands of shoulder-mounted missiles, including the modern Igla variants.
Some experts estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 shoulder-mounted missiles were looted from Libyan government stockpiles last year, and the weapons are still missing. Speculation grew in recent months that some Libyan weapons may have reached the battlefields in Syria, but the extent of such informal support remains unclear.
Meanwhile, the number of refugees crossing into neighbouring Turkey has increased. Turkish authorities said 7,000 people fled Syria in the last three days, bringing the total to 60,000 sheltering in Turkey.
At a gathering in Mecca, foreign ministers from the Islamic Cooperation Organization discussed Syria’s expulsion from the group. Algeria and Iran reportedly opposed the motion, which win gain approval in the coming days as a majority of Islamic countries express outrage over the bloodshed.