Damascus (AFP) – A Syrian military helicopter was shot down over the last major rebel bastion in northwestern Syria on Friday, the second such incident in a week of high tension with Turkey.
The attack in a region where Turkish and Russian-backed government forces collided several times came when Washington asked Ankara to look at its western allies in view of Moscow’s actions.
Syrian and Russian forces have launched a deadly offensive against the shrinking pocket in the northwest of the country since December, killing nine civilians on Friday.
“Around 1:40 p.m. (1140 GMT), one of our military helicopters was hit by an enemy missile in the western Aleppo countryside,” said the Syrian state news agency SANA.
“This caused the helicopter to crash and killed the entire crew on board.”
SANA said the plane was shot near the city of Urum al-Kubra, where rebels supported by Turkey operate, but did not say who fired the missile.
The National Liberation Front rebel group, supported by Turkey, took responsibility in a statement published in the Telegram app.
The Syrian Human Rights Observatory said the two helicopter pilots had been killed.
An AFP correspondent saw the mutilated remains of the helicopter and the bloodstained exertion of one of the pilots.
Another Syrian military helicopter was shot down over Idlib province three days earlier, killing at least three crew members.
Turkish media accused the attack on rebels, but the observatory said Ankara’s troops fired rockets at the plane over the village of Qaminas, southeast of the city of Idlib.
Turkey has not taken any responsibility.
– tensions in Turkey –
Since December, Syrian government forces have launched a violent attack on the last large rebel bag in the northwest of the Idlib region and in parts of the neighboring provinces of Aleppo and Latakia.
Eight civilians, including three children, were killed in a bombing on Friday, the observatory said, adding that five died in Russian raids near the almost deserted city of Atareb.
Government troops are within five kilometers (three miles) of the city, the monitor said.
According to the United Nations, the attack triggered the largest wave of displacement in the nine-year conflict. 800,000 people have fled since December.
Among them, around 82,000 people sleep poorly in freezing temperatures.
European members of the UN Security Council called on Friday for an immediate end to the Idlib offensive to save lives.
“We demand that the parties, especially the Syrian regime and its allies, immediately end their military offensive and bring about a real and lasting ceasefire,” said permanent member France and non-permanent members Belgium, Estonia and Germany.
“There can be no sustainable military solution to the Syrian conflict,” said a joint statement.
The unprecedented exodus of civilians has raised the alarm in Turkey that fears an influx across the border.
Turkey sent troops to Syria for the first time in 2016 and has sent reinforcements to the northwest in recent weeks to curb the attack.
This has led to a number of confrontations, including fatal clashes this week in which government shelling killed five Turkish troops.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened the Syrian government in recent days and said the offensive violated a 2018 agreement with Russia to prevent a major military operation.
The advance has also escalated tensions between Ankara and Moscow, which have worked closely together in Syria despite the support of the opposing sides.
Erdogan accused Russia of having committed “massacres” in Idlib on Wednesday.
– Russian “destructive role” –
A senior US State Department official said Friday that Turkey-Russia tensions over Syria should cause Ankara to move closer to the West, particularly Washington.
“Certainly we want Turkey to be more direct and clearer in line with NATO, the United States and the West, recognizing the very destructive role that Russians are playing regionally, even now in Syria,” said the official.
On Friday, pro-government forces pushed west of the M5 motorway, which connects the four largest cities in Syria and is of economic importance for the government, the observatory said.
The Syrian armed forces seized the last section of the highway earlier this week, which is still out of their control. SANA said on Friday that the areas flanking it were swept and the road was fully secured.
In order to consolidate a “safety belt” around the street, the regime seized a key base on Friday that it had lost to rebels in 2012, the observatory said.