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Free Fire | | Counterterrorism, Middle East, Russia

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On February 3rd, in northeastern Idilb province, Syria, a Russian Sukhoi Su 25 fighter jet was shot down by the Al Qaeda-linked Syrian group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham(HTS).

HTS used a surface to air missile in order to shoot down the jet.

The Russian pilot ejected after the plane was struck by the missile. The pilot reportedly survived ejection, and reportedly was killed after Al Nusra fighters attempted to capture him, according to the Russian ministry of defense.

HTS used a weapon known as MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System) in order to down the jet. This of course raised the question as to where HTS acquired this sort of a weapon.

In the past HTS had pleaded with their international backers to acquire this sort of a weapons system. HTS’s backers are not well known, and the US, Russia, and Iran all publicly oppose the group.

However, HTS has worked with Turkey and Qatar in the past.

In 2017 Turkey moved through the province of Idilb and headed toward Aleppo in an effort with Russia and Iran to de-escalate certain areas within Syria. Turkish forces coordinated with HTS as they went through Idilb.

HTS commander Muhammed al Julani sought to improve relations with Turkey, at least in part in order to have a regional backer who could protect HTS from facing a terrorism designation, and to position HTS as a partner in controlling Idilb. Despite warming HTS and Turkish ties there’s no direct evidence that Turkey has supplied MANPADS to HTS.

However, HTS’ other known backers in Qatar do have a history of supplying MANPADS that have fallen into jihadist hands.

Qatar reportedly delivered Chinese FN-6 MANPADS to Syrian rebel groups, some of which have also fallen into the hands of the Islamic State. These top of the line Chinese-made MANPADS were reportedly delivered to elements within the Free Syrian Army by sympathizers in Qatar. The weapons were most likely purchased from arms dealers in Sudan, which has a large stockpile of the FN-6s, purchased from China. Sudan is a major customer for Chinese manufactured arms.

Qatar’s ties to HTS have been part of a long standing disagreement between the small nation and its Gulf neighbors, who point to the Qatari decision to provide the Al Qaeda-linked group with millions of dollars as part of a “Ransom” payment scheme.

Qatar’s record on terrorism finance continues to be problematic for the U.S. which technically considers Qatar a close ally in the fight against terrorism. In 2009 Secretary of State Hilary Clinton signed a US cable that stated Qatar’s counterterrorism cooperation is the “worst in the region.”

It would be reasonable to believe that HTS received access to MANPADS through Qatari backers, with the weapons movements possibly facilitated by Turkey.

This would put the two supposed U.S. allies at odds with the U.S. own publicly stated position opposing the proliferation of MANPADS, which U.S. officials fear may fall into the hands of terrorist groups.

On February 3rd according to The Washington Post, the State Department denied allegations of supplying MANPAD weapon systems to groups in Syria, and denied that U.S. equipment was used to shoot down the Russian jet.

Russia retaliated by launching airstrikes. The Washington Post reported that the Russian Defense Ministry said they used “Precision guided weapons” without any further detail. It has been reported that 10 civilians were killed in the Russian response, while Russian sources report killing 30 fighters.

HTS downing of the Sukhoi Su 25 fighter jet, a highly sophisticated fighter jet, is no easy feat. The last time a Russian jet was downed in Syria was 2015 when a Turkish fighter jet fired at a Russian SU 24 fighter jet which reportedly crossed into Turkish airspace.

Obviously, the successful deployment of sophisticated MANPADs by Al Qaeda affiliated groups is deeply concerning. There has been very little public cooperation between the US and Russia on the MANPADs issue, despite concerns raised by both countries, a likely result both of differences over the Syrian situation in addition to wider tensions. Despite their probable contravention of U.S. efforts to prevent MANPADs proliferation it’s unlikely this recent incident will have a substantial effect on U.S-Turkish or U.S.-Qatari relations.

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