Syrian fighter pilot has fallen into hands of furious victims

Warplane downed near town that has suffered repeated regime bombing

Displaced Syrians who fled from their villages near the village of Jibala in the south of Idlib province to escape bombing by Syrian government forces, return home shortly before a truce fell apart between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad's regime, on August 4, 2019. Damascus resumed air strikes on northwest Syria's Idlib on August 5, a war monitor said, scrapping a ceasefire for the jihadist-run bastion and accusing its opponents of targeting an airbase of its ally Russia. / AFP / Aaref WATAD

The capture of a Syrian regime pilot whose warplane was downed while bombing a rebel town went against the tide of widely condemned Russian and Iranian-backed offensive that has gained President Bashar Al Assad rebel territory but killed hundreds of civilians.

The Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham said on Wednesday it had captured the Sukhoi-22 pilot near Khan Sheikhoun in the northern Idlib governorate, the last major rebel stronghold. The regime's ruthless bombing of the town will raise the price for exchanging the pilot, or make it prohibitive, opposition sources said.

The UN had blamed the regime for an aerial sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed dozens of civilians. In the 24 hours before that attack, warplanes bombed at least three hospitals in the town and nearby to deny treatment to the victims, according to the Syrian American Medical Society.

The regime and Russia will have to pay a high price to get the pilot back.

The attack on Khan Sheikhoun was one of at least 33 chemical weapons attacks blamed on the regime by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, set up by the UN Human Rights Commissioner. The Commission identified another six chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2013 but their perpetrators could not be determined.

An officer in the Syrian military opposition said rebels had captured at least 15 regime pilots since the Syrian uprising turned into a full-scale armed rebellion in 2012-2013, following a crackdown on protests against Mr Al Assad.

Of the 15, five were either exchanged or handed back to the regime under pressure from Turkey, which had in turn acted under Russian pressure. The remaining 10 pilots have not been heard from.

The officer said that after the latest pilot capture Russia relayed to the opposition that it was holding Syrian rebels alive, raising the possibility of an exchange.

“The regime and Russia will have to pay a high price to get the pilot back. It will be scandal for Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and for the rebels in the area if he was released for nothing,” he said.

Early in August UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced a special investigation into the bombing of hospitals and schools in Idlib by the regime and its Russian backers, who said the facilities contain terrorists. The UN move prompted a brief halt in the bombing.

Another Syrian opposition source said many of the regime’s pilots could still be alive, having mostly been captured by militant rebel factions.

He said the militants were more pragmatic than ISIS, which burned alive a Jordanian pilot in January 2015, months after he was captured in Deir Ezzor, and released footage of his killing.

“They are not afraid of doing something similar to ISIS but they realise it would be counterproductive,” the source said.

The source attributed few prisoner exchanges taking place to many of the pilots belonging to the Mr Al Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which raises their price.

“It is either the pilot is Alawite, or he belongs to another sect, in which case the regime mostly does not care.”

Neither the regime nor the militants have released information about the identity of the pilot, who opposition sources say is likely to have been transferred well away from Khan Sheikhoun.

In a measure of the popular anger, an Idlib physician who lost his seven children in a 2017 air raid on Idlib city, the provincial capital, said he wanted to his own version of justice.

Mr Mahmoud Al Sayeh emerged alive after the raid destroyed the apartment building he lived in with his family, but 29 residents of the building were killed. Among them were his seven children, as well as his brother and his brother’s six-member family.

“Hand me the pilot. I will torch him, and bear all religious and temporal responsibility,” Mr Al Sayeh said on Twitter, posting a photo of his five daughters and two sons, all under 10.