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Executive Summary for February 5th

We review the key events in Syria, including Russia stepping up attacks on Idlib after rebels downed a Russian fighter jet, Turkey saying eight of its troops were killed in northern Syria and warnings that thousands of refugees will be forced to return to Syria in 2018.

Published on Feb. 5, 2018 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Moscow Escalates Attacks on Idlib After Rebels Down Russian Warplane

Russian warplanes pounded Idlib province with a barrage of airstrikes over the weekend after rebels downed a Russian fighter jet and killed its pilot on Saturday.

The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance (HTS), which is dominated by al-Qaida’s former affiliate in Syria, claimed responsibility on Saturday for shooting down a Russian Su-25 fighter jet that was flying over the opposition-held town of Saraqeb, the Washington Post (WP) reported.

HTS said in a statement that the military commander of its air defense battalion used a man-portable air-defense system, or MANPADS, a shoulder-fired weapon, to bring down the plane, according to the WP.

The source of the MANPADS was not immediately clear.

The pilot was reportedly killed after he ejected from the aircraft and exchanged fire with militants on the ground, WP said, citing Russia’s defense ministry and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor.

This is not the first time that a Russian aircraft has been downed in Syria. The WP said that in August 2016, a Russian transport helicopter was “shot down over Saraqeb, killing all five people aboard.” However, Saturday’s attack could mark the first time a Russian fighter jet has been downed since Moscow began its aerial campaign in Syria in 2015, according to the BBC.

Following the incident, Russia stepped up its aerial campaign on the rebel-held province in retaliation for the attack, according to Reuters.

Citing Civil Defense sources, Reuters said that several people were killed and dozens more were injured on Sunday after airstrikes targeted towns and cities in Idlib including, Kafr Nubl, Maasran, Saraqeb, Maarat al-Numan and Idlib’s provincial capital.

The attacks on Idlib’s provincial capital killed some 15 people while the attack on Kafr Nubl killed five, Reuters said. The attacks on Maarat al-Numan hit a hospital, according to Reuters.

Earlier on Saturday, at least 10 people were killed after the downing of the jet in airstrikes on Khan al-Subl near where the plane crashed, Reuters said. A separate attack in the town of Maasran killed another seven, according to Reuters.

Eight Turkish Troops Killed in Deadliest Day Since the Start of Afrin Operations

Turkey said eight of its troops were killed on Saturday in operations against a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, marking the deadliest day for Ankara since the start of its two-week-long campaign, the Associated Press reported.

Five soldiers were killed after their armored vehicle was attacked near the district of Afrin in Aleppo province, the AP said, citing a Turkish military statement. Three other soldiers were killed earlier on Saturday, according to the AP, including one who was killed on the Turkish side of the border in what Turkey said was an attack by Kurdish militiamen.

Saturday’s casualties bring the total death toll for Turkish troops to 13 since Ankara launched “Operation Olive Branch” on January 20, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, thousands of people took to the streets in Afrin on Sunday to call on world powers to stop Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish enclave, Agence France-Presse reported.

“We ask the Russian Federation in particular to rescind its support for the Turkish state’s terrorism against the people of Afrin,” Afrin’s local administration said in a statement.

“It bears responsibility for the massacres the fascist Turkish state is carrying out against innocent civilians.”

Report Warns of Forced Refugee Returns in 2018

Aid agencies on Monday warned that hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are at risk of being forced to return to the war-torn country in 2018, despite ongoing violence, Agence France-Presse reported.

A report by leading humanitarian groups, including the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and CARE International, observed that a number of host countries have made refugee returns a prominent part of their agenda, AFP said.

Some 721,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2017 – an increase from the 560,000 that returned to the country the previous year.

However, the report warned that for every person who returned to Syria in 2017 at least three more people were newly displaced and that an additional 1.5 million people were expected to be forced from their homes in 2018, according to AFP.

“Now, return would neither be safe nor voluntary for the vast majority who fled the war and the violence,” NRC secretary-general Jan Egeland said.

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