Jihadists shot down a Syrian warplane in the opposition stronghold of Idlib province on Wednesday as Russian-backed government forces closed in on a strategically important town.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said the warplane had been hit by an anti-aircraft missile fired by militants. Warplanes’ missions usually target hospitals, markets, and schools. In this instance, the Assad regime claimed the warplane’s mission was “to destroy headquarters of the Nusra Front”. Now known as Tahrir al-Sham.
Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful insurgent group in the area, said its fighters had shot down a Sukhoi 22 jet that had taken off from a Syrian air base in Homs province. It did not say how the rebels brought the jet down.
SANA said the pilot’s fate was unknown. Opposition sources said a pilot has ejected from the plane and the rebels captured him.
The opposition sources said the rebels used heavy machine guns to bring the plane down.
SITE OF ASSAD GAS ATTACK
Government forces seized new ground from rebels near Khan Sheikhoun on Wednesday. They advanced to within a few kilometers (miles) of the town. A rebel commander told Reuters that the town, in opposition hands since 2014, was in “great danger”.
The poison gas attack killed dozens of people in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017. It prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to order a missile strike against the Syrian air base from where the United States said it had been launched.
An investigation conducted by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the Syrian government was responsible for releasing sarin on the town on April 4, 2017.
Syrian rebels have shot down government planes on several occasions during the war. A war that spiraled out of the uprising against the Assad family terror in 2011.
The northwestern Idlib region is part of the last major stronghold of the opposition to Assad.
REGIME STRUGGLING, THEN MAKING GAINS
Assad’s side had struggled to make any gains in the area in an offensive that got under way in late April. But since the collapse of a brief ceasefire this month, it has managed to take several significant positions. They include the town of al-Habeet on Saturday.
The advance toward Khan Sheikhoun threatens to encircle the last remaining pocket of rebel-held territory in neighboring Hama province, including the towns of Morek, Kafr Zeita and Latamneh.
The humanitarian adviser to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria said the new surge in violence in the northwest threatened the lives of millions after the fighting killed more than 500 civilians since late April.
Tahrir al-Sham is the latest incarnation of the group the world knew as the Nusra Front. Nusra was al Qaeda’s official wing in the Syrian conflict until they parted ways in 2016.
The U.N. Security Council has designated the group as a terrorist organization.
Reuters contributed to this article.