In less than 24 hours, rebels used surface-to-air missiles to strike down two aircraft in northern Syria, marking a turning point in their war with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Since the end of July, the Syrian regime has used fighter jets to try to suppress a growing insurgency. The air force has frequently bombarded rebel-held areas across the country, causing high casualties.
Yet on Wednesday morning, rebels shot down a warplane in the northern province of Aleppo, a reporter said.
The warplane crashed after being hit with a missile, causing a massive explosion and releasing a tower of black smoke into the sky, said the reporter, who was a few kilometers away.
The previous day, insurgents had downed an army helicopter for the first time.
“It’s a turning point,” said Riad Kahwaji, expert at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“If the Syrian air force starts losing several aircraft every day, that will be a significant turning point because the regime will lose its superiority and will no longer be able to use its main means of delivering strong fire power effectively,” Kahwaji told reporters.
The jet fell on an olive grove 1km away from the village of Tourmanin, north of the embattled city of Aleppo.
Wednesday’s attack, claimed by a rebel Free Syrian Army group, occurred near the Sheikh Suleiman base, the last garrison in government hands between Syria’s second city and the Turkish border.
Dozens of rebels rushed to the scene minutes after the plane was shot down, crying out Allahu Akbar! (“God is great”).
Children rummaged among the smoldering debris, as the stench of kerosene and burning plastic rose. Some teenagers picked up pieces of the plane’s broken wings, others played with ammunition.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the jet had been brought down with a missile.
While some witnesses gave a similar version, others said rebels had used an anti-aircraft gun.
It appeared more likely that the rebels used a missile as the plane had been flying at a high altitude.
Rebels in Tourmanin said members of the insurgent Ahrar Daret Ezza group, whose name means the Free People of Daret Ezza, were responsible for the strike.
“The plane had the time to drop its bombs just before it crashed,” one witness said.
The crash caused an explosion that was easily heard several kilometers away.
The two pilots in the plane ejected before the crash, with one of them captured immediately after making a parachute landing, witnesses said. The fate of the second pilot is unknown.
The jet was the second government aircraft to have been shot down by rebels using missiles in less than 24 hours.
In the same area on Tuesday, insurgents downed the army helicopter with a ground-to-air missile, in what the Observatory said had the potential to change the balance of military power in the 20-month old conflict.
The gunship had been on a strafing run near Sheikh Suleiman.
Little more than a week ago, the rebels seized tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, 120mm mortars and rocket launchers when they took the regime forces’ sprawling Base 46, about 12km west of Aleppo.
Rebel commander General Ahmed Faj told reporters on Friday that the rebels had also seized surface-to-air missiles from the base.
“If the rebels have a significant arsenal of surface-to-air missiles, like the well-known Stingers that decimated Russian helicopters and jets in Afghanistan, [al-]Assad’s army will lose part of its control of the sky,” Syria expert Fabrice Balanche told reporters. “Rebel-held areas will become safe, and insurgents will be able to go on the offensive without fearing the aerial threat.”
“It’s a red line the rebels and their supporters have crossed,” Balanche added.
Syria’s revolt is supported by Turkey, several Gulf states and the West, while Russia, China and Iran assist to al-Assad’s regime.
“Now the Russians will certainly give the Syrians more sophisticated equipment,” Balanche said.