US-backed forces have right to self-defense, but others do not - State Department

Syrian Turkmen fighters are seen with an anti-aircraft artillery weapon near the northern Syrian village of Yamadi, near the Turkish-Syrian border, Syria, November 24, 2015. © Stringer
Turkey and the rebels it backs northern Syria had the right to defend themselves against Russian airstrikes, State Department spokesman told reporters. The rebels reportedly killed one Russian pilot who ejected from the jet hit by a Turkish missile.

During the regular press briefing, Mark Toner said the Syrian government did not have such a right, though.

When asked by RT's Gayane Chichakyan if the State Department considered the rebels who reportedly killed the Russian pilots "moderates," Toner replied:

"We’ve seen conflicting reports. One pilot may not have been killed. If these ‘Turkomen’ were actually being attacked by Russian strikes, they have every right to defend themselves.” 

AP's diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee asked a follow up question.

"Doesn’t that apply to everyone, not just rebels backed by West? Including the Assad regime?"

What the Assad regime was doing "is not self-defense," Toner countered, arguing that the government in Damascus responded to "peaceful protests with four years of terror."

When other reporters questioned his description of the Syrian conflict as a "peaceful protest," Toner brushed them off by saying that "everyone in this room knows what happened."

Toner repeated several times that Washington stood by Turkey as a NATO ally, and its "right to protect its sovereign airspace”, while refusing to comment on the specifics of this morning's downing of a Russian jet because, by his admission, he had no details yet.

The State Department spokesman confirmed the US was supplying TOW missiles – seen in a video purportedly showing the rebels destroying a Russian search-and-rescue helicopter – to the "moderates" in northern Syria who were supposedly battling Islamic State forces.

Another revelation at the briefing on Tuesday was that the "de-confliction" mechanism established between the US and Russia last month to avoid clashes in the skies over Syria did not apply to any other members of the US-led coalition.

Asked by Chichakyan if the State Department would condemn the rebels’ use of US-supplied missiles against a Russian rescue helicopter, Toner replied that Syria was a “very complex environment.”

Repeating that Russia was supporting Assad and directing airstrikes against the “moderate Syrian opposition,” he said that this only increased the urgency to speed up the political transition, so that everyone could focus on fighting Islamic State.