Russian Military Helicopter Crashes In Rebel-Held Territory In Syria, Killing All 5 On Board

August 1, 2016
Tail rotor of the Mi-8 helicopter that crashed near Saraqib this morning. Photo via TRT Arabic

LIVE UPDATES: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Syrian Regime Helicopters Reportedly Drop Chlorine Gas On Saraqib, Near Site Of Crashed Helicopter

There are reports tonight that Saraqib, the rebel-held Idlib town near which a Russian helicopter crashed earlier today, has been struck with chlorine gas bombs.

Conflict News translates a tweet from Raed Al Saleh, head of Syria Civil Defense (known as the White Helmets):

Syria’s pro-opposition SMART News Agency has published photo of an infant being treated for gas inhalation. The photo does appear to be new.

Latih Fares, another volunteer with Idlib Civil Defense, reported 27 people had suffered the effects of chlorine gas poisoning, but that the situation was under control.

The Syrian regime has been recorded using chlorine as a chemical weapon on numerous occasions. The reports of a helicopter strike fit the crude attack profile routinely used, in which cylinders of chlorine are dropped in barrel bombs.

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Syria: Strong Evidence Government Used Chemicals as a Weapon

(New York) – Evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014, Human Rights Watch said today. These attacks used an industrial chemical as a weapon, an act banned by the international treaty prohibiting chemical weapons that Syria joined in October 2013.

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Aug 01, 2016 21:41 (GMT)

In the last few minutes, Fares has reported follow-up air strikes on Saraqib, though fortunately only one person was lightly wounded.

— Pierre Vaux

Syrian Rebels Waging A Significant Counteroffensive Against Aleppo

As we’ve been reporting, the city of Aleppo, Syria’s now-ruined financial center that was once the jewel of the northern half of the country, is still largely held by anti-Assad rebels, but it has been completely surrounded by a coalition of fighters loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for 21 days. Last week the regime launched a significant attack against the city, raising concerns that the civilians trapped in the city would be slaughtered.

In the last 24 hours or so, Syrian rebels have launched a significant counteroffensive to open the blockade. Breaking news from the front lines is hard to verify, but we can see from looking at many accounts that the rebels may have achieved a victory.

But here is the key tweet — according to some reports, the most important artillery base in the entire city is now besieged by the rebels: 

The Ramouseh Artillery Base and Academy was the key to maintaining some control in Aleppo for the Assad regime between the summer of 2012 and today. The artillery units there were crucial to intimidating protesting students, and later in the regime’s efforts to flatten the Hamadaniyah and Salah el Din districts just north of the base. The artillery turned regime strongholds into death traps, transforming the battle for Aleppo into a game of inches waged by snipers, artillery, and aircraft. Since regime forces were often outnumbered over the course of those years, this leveled the playing field.

Since the intervention of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Shi’ite militias from Iraq, those areas have been recaptured by the regime. As we can see at a glance from looking at LiveUAMap, which places developing news on a map, this attack puts a key Assad stronghold in a pincer: 

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2016-08-01 14:42:15

Drone footage released by Jaish al-Fateh was reportedly taken in the area and appears to show a suicide attack against the Al Hikma school, just west-northwest of the artillery academy:
The video:

To confirm the location, the first picture below is from the video, and the second is from Wikimapia.

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2016-08-01 14:57:01

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This proves that the rebels have launched a significant assault on the outskirts of southwestern Aleppo. It remains to be seen whether various rebel groups have punched through Assad’s lines, much less whether or not they can hold that corridor open or recapture significant territory. It’s also unlikely that the area can be used to evacuate civilians, since fighting is so heavy in this area.

James Miller

Aleppo: Barrel Bombings, Strikes On Hospitals, Dwindling Food Supplies

Roy Gutman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and  former McClatchy Middle East bureau chief who is currently a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

Starting July 28, he has begun relaying reports from sources inside besieged Aleppo. Here are summaries of events over the weekend in the city:

Report from besieged Aleppo Saturday July 30, Day 20 

“Humanitarian corridors” that weren’t: Contrary to reports in Russian and official Syrian media (picked up by Reuters), the Aleppo siege media center said no families from besieged East Aleppo crossed into government-held territory Friday. The Syrian Network for Human Rights warned civilians that the pamphlets dropped form government helicopters showing maps of crossings were a ruse. Even if the crossings were open, Western diplomats say these are not “humanitarian” corridors, but one-way transit points in a forced displacement. 

Piling on: the US-supported SDF forces based in Shiekh Maksoud killed or wounded 20 rebels Friday morning and captured 12 others in clashes near the Kurdish neighborhood. Rebels withdrew to the Al Shakif area in the north of the city.

Rebel counter attack: Rebels fired missiles at regime positions on the Castello road and shelled a regime position in the Karm Al Tarrab neighborhood, killing or wounding many, opposition news sources said. Russian warplanes provided air cover to regime forces and bombed rebel locations in the Al Hullok neighborhood.

Opposition activists shared today photos that show Iranian militia fighters in the north of the city. 

Food supplies: bakeries are using up 45 tons of flour a day to feed the population estimated at 325,000, but this is only half the flour they received before the siege began, the Aleppo local council said. Many bakeries cannot operate at full capacity because of fuel shortages. 

Meanwhile, residents are drawing lessons from other Syrian cities that have been under siege. They are taking better care of their livestock and planting vegetables in every free space in and outdoors. 

School exams: Halab (Aleppo) TV broadcast a report showing the opposition interim government administering secondary school exams to school pupils in school basements — to avoid big loss of life in the event of regime bombings.

Report from besieged Aleppo, Sunday July 31, Day 21

More hospital bombings: The regime air forces destroyed three medical facilities in the last 24 hours. Late Saturday night regime warplanes bombed the Anadan city hospital northwest of Aleppo and on Sunday struck the only bank blood in the city of Al Atareb west of Aleppo. Regime warplanes also raided Al Huda hospital in the village of Al Hurr west of Aleppo, putting the hospital out of service. Other strikes targeted flour mills al Atarib and put them out of service. 

Barrel bombings: Inside Aleppo, three people were killed in the Al Hullok neighborhood in barrel bombing Sunday. Regime missile strikes were also reported in the neighborhoods of: Al Muasalat, Al Qaterji, Al Karaj, Al Sha’ar, Al Shakif and Bustan Al Basha.

Rebel offensive: At the start of a military operation to break the siege, rebels attacked regime positions in the south of the city, captured many hills and military positions and killed four Afghan Shiite militia fighting for the regime. Fighting is said to be fierce and escalating. They claim to have killed nine regime soldiers, captured 12 and killed four tanks and captured three. Opposition activists talked about the mass flight of the Iranian- led militias south of Aleppo. Russian and regime warplanes responded by firing missiles, killing 10 civilians so far. 

Crossings a ‘ruse’: The local council in Aleppo warned civilians of the dangers of attempting to cross into West Aleppo to surrender to the regime. The White Helmets, the leading civil defense organization, also warned against the “ruse of the humanitarian corridors.” It said one civilian was killed Saturday in an attempt to cross from the besieged part of the city in Salah Eldinn area. The White Helmets declared a state of emergency in Aleppo and the western countryside Sunday. 

Empty shops: Many shopkeepers in besieged Aleppo shuttered their premises after they ran out of food staples, the exception being shops with a supply of canned goods, Masar Press news agency said. On occasion, a farmer from rural Aleppo is able to bring in vegetables to besieged neighborhoods. At the sight of a car carrying vegetables, customers queue up, and the waits can be long.

In order to try and prevent air strikes, residents of Aleppo set fire to tires yesterday to create a smoke screen:

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Syria conflict: Aleppo residents create 'smoke curtain' – BBC News

A 'smoke curtain' to disrupt warplanes above Aleppo was created on Sunday by residents burning tyres, according to Syrian activists.

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Aug 01, 2016 10:24 (GMT)

Russian Military Helicopter Crashes In Rebel-Held Territory, Killing All 5 On Board

A Russian military helicopter has crashed southwest of Aleppo, killing all five on board.

The helicopter fell in rebel-held territory in the Idlib province, northeast of Saraqib.

The Russian Ministry of Defense claims that the Mil Mi-8 helicopter was shot down while returning to the Hmeemeem airbase in Latakia after delivering humanitarian aid to Aleppo.

According to the MOD, two of those aboard were officers from the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria.

However video of the wreckage clearly shows expended rocket pods: 

This would mean that even if the helicopter was not on a combat mission, it would still be legitimately perceived as a threat from the ground.

Joseph Dempsey, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) suggests the craft was a Mi-8AMTSh – a dedicated armored assault variant. 

— Pierre Vaux