Sunday, April 22, 2018

Rebels say they shot down Syrian fighter jet

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian rebels said Monday that they had shot down a Syrian fighter jet for the first time, raising new questions about the opposition's military capabilities and whether Syria's control of the skies might be threatened.

Syrian authorities insisted that the jet had crashed because of a technical failure, but rebel groups and activists sought to win over skeptics by turning to YouTube. They posted one 33-second video showing a jet bursting into flames and a second clip showing a man who identified himself as the ejected pilot, Farid Mohammed Suleiman. He told his captors in the video that he had been ordered to fire on an area in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour — and when an armed fighter beside him asked what he would like to say to the Syrian army, he said, "I tell them to defect from this gang."

The videos seemed intended to provide a morale boost for rebel fighters, who have been complaining about the Syrian military's undisputed air power for months. The videos set off another round of speculation about whether President Bashar Assad could maintain his military advantage in the 17-month-old conflict for much longer.

"Regardless of how they did it, if they can put down a jet fighter, then they can put down other planes as well," said Sami Nader, an analyst and professor of international relations at St. Joseph University in Beirut.

What brought the jet down, however, was a subject of dispute. Local activists said rebel fighters used a heavy antiaircraft machine gun that a local brigade had seized from a nearby military base.

But Nader said the rebels could be lying because they might not want to admit that they have antiaircraft missiles provided by international allies, since those allies do not want to be seen as fueling the conflict.

None of these accounts could be verified because of the limits on reporting in Syria, especially in Deir el-Zour, a city far from Damascus and Aleppo, where most of the recent fighting has been concentrated.

In Damascus, the commander of the United Nations monitoring mission said two-thirds of its observers had already left the country, with a week left before the mission's mandate expires. The commander, Gen. Babacar Gaye, said that only about 100 observers were left and that they were concentrated in Damascus.

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