Syrian rebels have shot down a government fighter jet south of Aleppo as renewed fighting across swaths of the country threatened to upend a fragile truce.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels from the Nusra Front brought down the Sukhoi-22 on Tuesday in an area where the al-Qaida-affiliated fighters had come under heavy bombardment since they captured it this week.
Syria’s military said a plane on a reconnaissance mission had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The pilot had bailed out and efforts were under way to rescue him, it said.
Videos showed a ball of flame in the sky falling, and locals cheering: “God is great.”
The latest battles came days before peace talks under UN auspices and brokered by Moscow and Washington were set to resume in Geneva, and days after regime airstrikes killed at least 30 people in a Damascus suburb, one of the most serious violations of the “cessation of hostilities” agreement brokered in late February.
“The ceasefire is finished, it will return when judgment day arrives,” said one resident of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city where fighting raged throughout Monday night. “It’s disgusting, there’s shelling and bombing everywhere.”
Aleppo city was the scene of fresh fighting, with the opposition and government forces shelling neighbourhoods under each other’s control. Rebels also fought with Kurdish paramilitaries in the city. The countryside north of the city saw fighting between the opposition and Islamic State, where rebels have been attempting to score advances against the terror group, which is not covered by the ceasefire.
In southern Aleppo province, rebels including the Nusra Front seized al-Is, a town near the highway linking the city to Damascus.
A rebel coalition surged through northern Latakia, taking control of towns that had been retaken by the regime in the course of an offensive earlier this year backed by Russian airstrikes.
The widespread violence is the most serious threat so far to the ceasefire agreement, which has held despite sporadic outbreaks of fighting in the country. It appears to have been triggered by a number of factors. Assad regime airstrikes over the weekend in the Damascus suburb of Deir as-Safir killed scores of civilians and gave fuel to claims by the opposition that it had repeatedly violated the ceasefire.
The opposition’s negotiators said at a meeting with British officials that the government’s “repeated” violations of the ceasefire were a threat to the whole political process, and also cited delays in the delivery of aid to besieged areas in Syria, a key provision of the deal.
Human Rights Watch said the government had blocked access to six out of 18 besieged locations around the country since the agreement came into effect.
An American airstrike on Sunday targeting a meeting of high-level Nusra officialskilled the group’s spokesman, Abu Firas al-Suri, possibly spurring the group and its allies into launching their offensive. Nusra is not covered by the ceasefire.
During the ceasefire, the Assad regime had scored key victories against Isis,reclaiming the historic city of Palmyra from the militants as well as the nearby town of al-Qaryatain, which has a significant Christian population, allowing it to better secure the road to Damascus and contributing to a sense that the government had seized the momentum in the war.
But the loss of territory in Latakia in particular highlighted its dependence on foreign patrons, failing to hold ground that was secured under intense Russian air cover. The Kremlin’s intervention last October allowed the regime to resist rebel encroachment in the coastal province, whose main cities have remained loyal to Assad.
“The regime, then, had experience battling Jabhat al-Nusra in that area and had a month to secure the village and the hilltop, but it failed to do so,” said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror.
“With the help of Russian airstrikes, regime troops may ascend the hilltop, but the message should be clear: unlike the opposition that is fighting on multiple fronts, the regime army is still too weak to hold its ground, much less to take Aleppo or any other major areas without close air support from Russia.”