Syria closes airspace over Idlib after aircraft shot down

Syrian move comes amid conflicting reports over which country the downed aircraft belongs to.

Antakya, Turkey – The Syrian government has closed the airspace over northwest Idlib amid conflicting reports of a plane being shot down over the region. 

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency said a Syrian “regime plane” was shot down over Idlib on Sunday, a claim promptly denied by Syria’s Syrian Arab news agency (SANA). 

Instead, SANA said it was a “Turkish regime drone” that had been downed in the region. The aircraft was brought down over the town of Saraqeb in Idlib, it said. 

In a statement quoted by SANA, the Syrian army also announced “the closure of the airspace for aircraft flights and any planes travelling over the northwestern region of Syria, especially over Idlib governorate”. 

The SANA report quoted a military source as saying: “Any aircraft that violates our airspace will be treated as a hostile flight that must be shot down and prevented from achieving its objectives.”

Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian airpower, have renewed an offensive to capture Idlib from opposition forces, who are backed by Turkey. Since the operation intensified in December, Syrian government forces have rapidly advanced into the last opposition stronghold, retaking the strategic M5 highway and solidifying control over parts of Aleppo province, which borders Idlib. 

Turkey says the operation violates deals signed with Russia in 2017 and 2018 to set up de-escalation zones in the region.

Tensions have escalated in recent days after 34 Turkish troops were killed in Syrian government air raids on Idlib. The toll was the biggest military loss the Turkish military has suffered since it intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2016, and in response, Ankara said it struck scores of Syrian government targets and “neutralised” 2,212 “soldiers and elements”. 

Speaking in Hatay on Sunday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Ankara’s response had also destroyed eight Syrian helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 artillery and rocket launchers, and three air defence systems. He also said the Turkish response is called operation “Spring Shield”. 

Damascus is yet to comment on the Turkish claims. 

“We have no intention of clashing with Russia. Our aim is to stop massacres Syrian regime’s massacres, radicalisation and migration,” Akar was quoted as saying by Turkish media.

He went on to pledge retaliation against attacks on Turkish forces and its observation posts in Idlib and said: “Turkey will only target Syrian regime soldiers and elements in Idlib who attacked Turkish troops … Turkey expects Russia to use its influence to end to Syrian regime attacks.” 

There was no immediate comment from Russia.

The renewed hostilities in Idlib has displaced nearly a million people, most of them women and children, according to the United Nations. Some 299 civilians have also been confirmed killed. 

Mark Lowcock, head of UN’s humanitarian agency, has described the situation as the “biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century” and called for an immediate ceasefire.