Two military officers and three crew members aboard a Russian Mi8 transport helicopter were killed after the Mi8 helicopter in which they were traveling was shot down Monday over Syria.
It is the deadliest incident for the Russian military since the force arrived in the Middle East over a year ago.
The troops were heading back from Aleppo to the Russian “Reconciliation Center” at Hemeimim Air Base on the Syrian coast when the aircraft was shot down over Idlib province.
It is not clear how the two pilots and three crew members died.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an update, “From what we know from information provided by the Defense Ministry, all those who were on the helicopter died.”
The Russian crew “died heroically because they tried to move the aircraft away to as to minimize losses on the ground,” Peskov said. “The Kremlin conveys its deep condolences to the families of those killed in action,” he added.
The aircraft had allegedly been delivering humanitarian aid to the besieged former commercial hub city of Aleppo, according to a statement by the Russian Defense Ministry. There are some 300,000 people still trapped in the opposition section of the city with rapidly depleting supplies and surrounded by intense fighting.
Idlib province is a stronghold of the Al Qaeda-linked Jaish al-Fateh (“Army of Conquest”) groups which have captured most of the province. The Kremlin said in its statement that the helicopter was shot down by ground fire.
The Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which announced it is changing its name and de-linking from the mother group, is part of Jaish al-Fateh.
In the past several months there have been at least three other incidents in which Russian aircraft have been shot down or crashed due to other reasons. Each time, two pilots were killed.
Opposition forces may have received new anti-aircraft weapons, freelance journalist Alaa Ibrahim told RT.com.
“I’ve heard some local sources where the [Russian] helicopter was downed speaking of the possibility of MANPADs – shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles – being used in that context,” he said.
Portable surface-to-air missiles would be a game changer in the hands of rebel forces, as such weapons counter air superiority — not only that of the Syrian regime Air Force, but also that of anyone else.
Although Western nations have tried to tease out the differences between “moderate” and “extremist Islamist” groups among the opposition forces, such parsing is not only very hard to do, it also becomes irrelevant as soon as any group faces heavy conflict with Syrian regime forces. At that point, all of the opposition groups tend to band together and share weapons, regardless of their ideological differences. This includes the Da’esh (ISIS) terrorists and Al Qaeda as well as the Free Syrian Army, who are facing the Iranian Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards and the Tehran-backed Hezbollah guerrilla forces, as well as the Syrian regime forces.
The weapons “sharing” gets worked out after the battle, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not.
At the end of the conflict when the war is at an end, most or all of the groups are likely to aim their arms at the State of Israel.