Syrian rebels shot down a Russian jet on Feb. 3 and then killed the pilot on the ground, Russia’s Defense Ministry said, triggering a furious barrage of dozens of airstrikes that observers say hit hospitals and killed civilians.
Adding to a chaotic weekend in the country, Turkish forces poured into Syria on Feb. 4 to fight U.S.-backed Kurdish militias there, suffering their heaviest day of losses so far with a tank being destroyed and troops coming under attack.
Now in Idlib — a stronghold of rebel forces considered terrorists by Russia and Syria — reports of yet another episode of chlorine gas attacks have surfaced. Children are said to be among the victims.
In neighboring Afrin, Turkey targeted Kurdish forces that the U.S. had worked with to counter the Islamic State terrorist group.
Caught in the crossfire are civilians, who are likely to pay the price of a furious Russia, which looks to have picked up its bombing runs to levels unseen since the fall of 2016.
Babies on stretchers, hospitals on fire
On the morning of Feb. 5, social media was replete with horrific footage believed to be taken from the ground in Syria.
The White Helmets, a volunteer organization whose members regularly pull civilians out of the rubble from bombings, posted pictures of babies in stretchers being taken from a burning hospital.
Several videos show men being treated for attacks apparently from chemical weapons, which Syria and Russia have vigorously denied using.
Russia vowed to find out who shot down its plane and where they got the weapon, which is said to be a man-portable air-defense, or Manpad, missile. Russian lawmakers went as far as saying they had information that “Western countries” had provided the system.
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) February 4, 2018
Other Russian officials threatened to punish countries that may have provided the weapons to the Syrians who shot down their jet, a Su-25 attack plane.
Throughout the first six years of Syria’s bloody civil war, the U.S. considered providing Manpads to Syrian rebels as a means of defending themselves against Syria’s air force, which has been accused of bombing and gassing civilians.
But as the war progressed and more and more hardline Islamist elements became entwined with the more moderate Syrian rebels, the U.S. publicly declined to provide the rebels with such weapons, which can also be used to take out commercial aircraft. Over the weekend, the Pentagon denied providing Manpads to Syrian rebels.
A new phase in the Syrian war?
But now Manpads are believed to have made their mark in Syria, possibly provided by powers that wish to erode Syria’s or Russia’s airpower or possibly plundered from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces themselves.
A soldier from the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that Turkey backs, was seen on video with a Russian-made Manpad in late January. In response to the highlighted threat from Manpads, Russia has ordered its jets to fly higher to avoid ground fire.
On top of the brewing conflict over the fate of the Kurds in Afrin, the U.S. has increasingly been discussing unverified reports of chemical-weapons attacks in Syria.
U.S. policy on the matter has dictated that if Syria uses chemical weapons on its own people, the U.S. will retaliate with force, as it did in April. So far, the Trump administration hasn’t shied away from implicating Russia in its prosecution of chemical-weapons violators in Syria. But any response now would come with Russia on edge and violence escalating between Turkish and Kurdish forces.