It was either a triumphant attack by Syrian rebels or a potentially catastrophic mid-air accident, but a Syrian military helicopter crashed near the capital of Damascus Thursday. According to The New York Times, Syrian rebels claim they shot down the war copter in a surface-to-air strike, but a report in Syria's state-owned news agency claims that the helicopter collided mid-air with a passenger plane carrying 200 people: The copter allegedly crashed after clipping the tail of the plane, but the plane managed to land safely at the Damascus airport.
It's not unusual for Syria to attribute successful rebel strikes to mere accidents, but this one comes with quite the elaborate excuse. By contrast, in August, after two MiG warplanes were shot down, Syria merely attributed the crashes to "mechanical failures" — not some death-defying, potentially mass casualty-causing affair. No further details were provided Thursday, although safely landing a plane without a tail is pretty death-defying in itself.
Regardless, as the Associated Press notes, the crash occurred southeast of Douma, a Damascus suburb that has undergone multiple military crackdowns to eradicate rebel fighters. ‘‘We heard the sound of several explosions and some gunfire, and few minutes later, we were told that a helicopter had crashed,’’ Mohammad Saeed, an activist in Douma, told the AP. If the copter was shot down, it would constitute a significant victory for the rebels in Damascus as just yesterday they were forced to retreat from multiple districts in the capital including al-Hajar al-Aswad, al-Qadam and al-A'sali after weeks of violent battles. According to the Times, "[a]ctivists said the fighters, shelled for days and out of ammunition, withdrew from the neighborhoods." We'll update when more details stream in.