Damascus – Syria’s military said on Wednesday it downed an American drone over suspicions it was spying, in what would be its first attack on an aircraft in the US-led coalition battling jihadists.
A military source, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said the drone was not immediately identified as being American but was shot down as a hostile aircraft.
“As soon as it entered Syrian air space, we considered it to be gathering security and military information on Syria’s territory,” the source in Damascus said.
“The aircraft entered areas where Daesh is not present,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group.
Syrian state media reported late on Tuesday that air defences had targeted a US surveillance aircraft over Latakia province, a coastal stronghold of President Bashar Assad.
Without specifying a location or timing for the incident, state media published a series of close-up photos showing what they said was the mangled wreckage of a small aircraft.
The US military confirmed losing communication with a Predator drone over Syria on Tuesday and said it was looking into claims the aircraft was shot down.
At about 17:40 GMT, “US military controllers lost contact with a US MQ-1 Predator unarmed remotely piloted aircraft operating over northwest Syria”, a US defence official said in an e-mail.
“At this time, we have no information to corroborate press reports that the aircraft was shot down. We are looking into the incident and will provide more details when available.”
If confirmed, the incident would be the first time Syrian forces have attacked a US aircraft since the international coalition began its raids against ISIS in Syria in September.
Damascus is not participating in the coalition’s strikes, although its own aircraft also target ISIS, but has so far refrained from taking action against the foreign planes involved in the operations.
It has been critical of the coalition, warning before the strikes began that it would consider them an attack on Syria if they went ahead without government consent.
After the first raids on 23 September, Damascus said it was notified ahead of time, though Washington has ruled out actively cooperating with Assad’s government on the attacks.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said last year that Washington had pledged its raids would not hit the Syrian army, though he added that Damascus was sceptical of the commitment.
“Do we trust this commitment? For now, we realise that President Barack Obama, for domestic reasons, wants to avoid war with Syria,” he told Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper.
“But we do not know how Obama will act under mounting pressure.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the drone was shot down in Al-Maqata, a village near the provincial capital of Latakia.
“There are no opposition fighters or jihadist groups anywhere in that area, but there is a large presence of regime forces,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
Assad family ancestral home
The US-led strikes in Syria have largely been focused on Aleppo and Raqa provinces, where ISIS has strongholds.
But the campaign has also targeted the group elsewhere and hit suspected positions of fighters affiliated with Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda.
ISIS is largely absent from Latakia, according to the Observatory, though Al-Nusra fighters have a presence in the region.
Latakia is home to the Assad family’s ancestral village and is a bastion of the Alawite sect of Shi’ite Islam to which the president belongs.
It has been mostly insulated from the brutal fighting that has wracked Syria since anti-government demonstrations that began in March 2011 spiralled into a civil war following a regime crackdown.
More than 215 000 people have been killed in the conflict, nearly a third of them civilians, according to the Observatory.