Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS, or the “Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant”) claims to have downed a Russian fighter jet in northwestern Syria earlier today. The group released two videos and a short statement saying the warplane was struck with a shoulder-fired missile.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that the jet was downed.
“On 3 February 2018, a Russian fighter jet Su-25 crashed when flying over the Idlib de-escalation zone,” the defense ministry said in a statement, according to TASS (a Kremlin media organ).
“The pilot was able to report ejection from an area controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra militants,” the defense ministry said.
The Russian government added that “the jet was brought down with a portable anti-aircraft missile system” and the “pilot was killed while fighting against terrorists.”
In its own statement, HTS quoted Mahmoud al-Turkmani, the “military commander” of its “air defense battalion.” Al-Turkmani explained that the Russian jet was downed by a shoulder-fired “missile over the sky of Saraqib in the Idlib countryside this afternoon.” The HTS commander said the plane was targeted as “revenge for our people,” so that the “criminal invaders” will know that they can’t use Syria’s skies with impunity. Al-Turkmani added that one of his air defense battalions was recently dispatched to Saraqib after the Russian-led bombardment of the area had intensified.
Although the Russian statement refers to the jihadists as “Jabhat al-Nusra militants,” they have not gone by that name since July 2016. Up until that month, Al Nusrah Front was an official branch of al Qaeda. Then, on July 28, 2016, the group’s leader announced that Al Nusrah had rebranded as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS, or “Conquest of the Levant Front”). Months later, in Jan. 2017, JFS merged with other factions to establish HTS.
Even a leading HTS figure has admitted that the rebranding in July 2016 was initially intended to be a media stunt, with JFS maintaining its “secret” allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.
However, a real leadership dispute became public after HTS was formed in Jan. 2017, with some jihadi critics of HTS claiming that Abu Muhammad al Julani, who led Al Nusrah and then HTS, and others had broken their bay’at (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri. In Dec. 2017, Zawahiri himself weighed in, saying that he “did not release anyone from our pledge.” There have been reconciliation attempts both before and since then, but it is not entirely clear what came of the mediation efforts.
In any event, it is HTS that struck the Russian jet earlier today. And others were quick to join in celebrating the crash.
For example, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a US-designated terrorist and al Qaeda-linked cleric released his own video showing smoke billowing from the wreckage in the distance. Muhaysini claims to have been with the “brothers” who destroyed the Russian jet shortly beforehand. The Saudi ideologue was a senior figure in HTS until Sept. 2017. He resigned after leaked audio recordings made it clear that others in the organization had it out for him. FDD’s Long War Journal assesses it is likely that Muhaysini has been involved in the recent jihadi reconciliation efforts.
The jihadis and their allies, as well as other factions, have controlled Idlib province since early 2015. The jihadis have dreamed of building a Taliban-style sharia state in Idlib ever since then. However, Bashar al Assad’s regime, along with its Russian and Iranian-backed allies, are now attempting to retake parts of the province.
Screenshots from two HTS videos showing the downing of the Russian jet:
One HTS video apparently shows the Su-25 jet flying across the sky:
Moments later, HTS fired a missile at the plane. The tail of the missile can be seen on the left in the screenshot below:
In another video, HTS shows the wreckage of the Russian warplane:
More footage from the wreckage:
Muhaysini’s video shows smoke billowing in the distance:
Muhaysini smiles as he points to the site of the downed Russian plane: