Syrian government forces reenter strategic town, Turkey vows to keep up strikes

By Orhan Coskun and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian government forces entered parts of a strategic rebel-held town on Monday, and Turkey said it would keep hitting President Bashar al-Assad’s troops after ramping up operations in its biggest intervention yet into the Syrian civil war.

Turkey and Russia, which have come closer than ever to direct confrontation in Syria in recent days, traded threats over air space after Turkish forces shot down two Syrian government warplanes and struck a military airport.

Fighting has escalated dramatically in recent days in northwest Syria, where Turkey has sent thousands of troops and military vehicles in the last month to counter Syrian government forces’ advances in the last remaining bastion held by rebels.

A million people have been displaced since December near Turkey’s southern border, causing what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in nine years of war.

A Syrian state television correspondent in the town of Saraqeb said the army was combing the town after the retreat of Turkey-backed rebels. Rebel sources said clashes were continuing in western parts of the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said rebels were trying to regain control.

Saraqeb has already changed hands twice in less than a month, reflecting its importance as a gateway to the government-controlled northern city of Aleppo and to rebel-held Idlib city to the west.

Rebels said Turkish drones had been striking Syrian army positions on the Saraqeb frontline, hitting at least two rocket launchers.

Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting Assad for much of Syria’s nine-year civil war, stepped up its intervention in response to the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week, the deadliest strike against the Turkish army in decades.

On Sunday it shot down two Syrian planes in Idlib and struck at least one military airport in Aleppo province, taking the battle deep into territory controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

“The (Syrian) regime’s human and equipment losses are just the beginning,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “If they do not withdraw to the borders Turkey has determined as soon as possible, they will not have a head left on their shoulders.”

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had so far destroyed eight helicopters, scores of tanks and five air defense systems.

Russia, for its part, said it could not guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft over Syria, and Damascus said it was closing Syrian air space over the Idlib region.


Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are due to meet in Moscow on Thursday to seek agreement on Idlib.

“We will go to Moscow to evaluate these developments with Mr Putin. My hope is that we take the necessary steps there, whether it is a ceasefire or any other steps needed,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has insisted it seeks no conflict with Moscow, but its barrage of strikes on the Russian-backed forces around Idlib have raised the risk of a direct confrontation.

“A solution is expected to emerge from the talks but attacks and attempts which the (Syrian) regime carries out in this period will not go unanswered,” a senior Turkish security official told Reuters.

Backed by Turkish shelling and drone strikes, rebels say they have now retaken several villages that they lost last week in the Syrian government offensive.

Erdogan demanded in early February that Syrian forces withdraw by the end of the month from a “de-escalation zone” around Idlib agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in 2017, or face being driven back by the Turkish military.

“The (Syrian) regime will be forced to leave the de-escalation zone before the Putin-Erdogan meeting,” a senior Syrian opposition source said.

Already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara is determined to prevent any further influx of migrants from Syria.

Turkey opened its western borders on Friday to let migrants reach Europe, in an apparent move to demand EU support in Syria by repudiating a 2016 agreement to shut the frontier.

The European Union’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed sympathy with Turkey over the conflict in Syria, but said sending migrants to Europe cannot be the answer.

Turkey had shut the border in return for EU funds under a 2016 deal to end a crisis in which more than a million people entered Europe and 4,000 drowned in the Aegean Sea. On Monday, a child died after being pulled from the sea when a boat capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek officials said, the first reported fatality since Turkey re-opened its border last week.

Two Turkish security sources told Reuters a Syrian migrant also died from injuries on Monday after Greek security forces acted to stop migrants entering Greece by land. Athens denied the incident.

More than 1,000 migrants have arrived by sea on Greek islands since Sunday and more than 10,000 have attempted to cross by land at the border, where guards from both sides have fired tear gas into crowds caught in no-man’s land.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Writing by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler; Editing by Alex Richardson and Peter Graff)

Whose sky is it anyway? U.S. drone case tests rights to air space

Drone flying over field

By Paola Totaro and Konstantin Kakaes

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When a small town American roofer took legal action against a neighbor for shooting down his drone, the local dispute sparked a case that could help shape the newest frontier of property rights law – who owns the air.

Drone owner David Boggs filed a claim for declaratory judgment and damages in the Federal Court after his neighbor William Merideth from Hillview in the southern state of Kentucky blasted his $1,800 drone with a shotgun in July last year.

Boggs argued to the District Court in Kentucky that the action was not justified as the drone was not trespassing nor invading anyone’s privacy, while Merideth – who dubs himself the “drone slayer” – said it was over his garden and his daughter.

After a year of counter argument, a decision on which court jurisdiction should hear the complaint is expected within weeks and this could set new precedents for U.S. law.

Experts are watching the case closely as the burgeoning drone industry, fueled both by hobbyists and commercial operators, highlights the lack of regulation governing lower altitude air space not just in the United States but globally.

“We are in an interesting time now when technology has surpassed the law,” said Boggs’ lawyer, James Mackler, a former Blackhawk pilot and partner at Frost Brown Todd and one of a handful of attorneys specializing in unmanned aircraft law.

“Operators need to know where they can fly and owners must know when they can reasonably expect privacy and be free of prying eyes,” said Mackler whose work involves advising both corporate and government clients planning commercial drone use.

The landmark case comes amid a sharp increase in the global market for drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, with research firm, Markets and Markets estimating an annual growth rate of 32 percent every year to a $5.6 billion industry by 2020.


The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) forecasts about 2.5 million drones will be buzzing in U.S. skies by the end of 2016 – and that number will more than triple by 2020.

But with the global industry surging, all parties, including  Merideth, and Boggs’ lawyer, Mackler, agree the use of drones in lower air space urgently needs to be clarified and defined.

“To be honest with you, at the time I did what I did I was reacting as most homeowners would, protecting their property, their kids … I didn’t know who was operating the drone or for what purpose,” Merideth told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“In the end, I’m hoping that laws can be put into place to protect not just the home owner but the individual who owns the drone. They have rights too. It is a huge gray area and for now nobody knows what they are allowed to do.”

Mackler estimates about a drone a month is shot down in the United States as residents grapple with the legal confusion about what constitutes their property and their rights.

“What happens typically is that law enforcement doesn’t know what to do and civil suits are uncommon as most people don’t want to get involved due to the costs,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

Boggs’ complaint states that the drone was flying at about 200 feet (6o m) above ground level for around two minutes over  residential Bullitt County when it was blasted out of the sky.

The height at which the drone was flying is disputed as Merideth insists it was much lower – an integral part of the legal case because higher airspace used by commercial planes is clearly defined in law.

For now, there is no real agreement on who owns the air space below that height and there are also no rules that identify who has the right to say how it can be used.

The court challenge filed by Boggs in January shows Merideth’s defense for downing the drone hinged on his belief it may have been taking video or still images of his daughter.

When Boggs challenged his neighbor, Merideth warned him that not only was he was protecting his family’s rights but he was not to come any further.

Police were called and Merideth was charged with felony, wanton endangerment and criminal mischief but Kentucky District Court Judge Rebecca Ward last October dismissed the criminal charges, saying he “had a right to shoot at the aircraft”.

Boggs’ lawyer Mackler said the case is not about payment for  the damaged drone but about carving legally clear boundaries between unregulated lower air space and personal property.

If the case is heard in the District Court, he said, it will not be binding in other federal court jurisdictions but will be influential in other courts. However, if it is appealed and sent to a higher court, it could create a precedent for the country.


Despite the lack of legal clarity over air space, the United States moved to free up the use of small drones on Aug. 30  by relaxing rules requiring drone operators to have a manned pilots license and specific FAA approval.

These have been replaced with a new class of FAA license which is much less onerous and less expensive, allowing the use of drones weighing less than 25 kgs for routine educational or commercial use such as power line and antenna inspections.

The rules stopped short of allowing package deliveries, as proposed by Inc, and currently drones can only be used in sight of the operator and not over people.

The FAA expects within a year 600,000 drones will be used commercially – up from 20,000 registered now for commercial use.

Anglo-American property law scholars trace the first principles of law for the air back more than 800 years to the Latin “cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelom et ad infernos”.

This effectively meant that earthly property ownership was deemed to include everything below land to the center of the earth and upwards in the sky to heaven.

But with the advent of commercial air travel this principle was laid to rest because property owners could not be considered as owners of the air thousands of feet above their homes if air travel was to prosper.

In the United States, the legal principles that emerged over the 20th century focused on nuisance: flights at great heights came to be permitted without regard to the rights of property owners, while low altitude flights, including take-offs and landings, had to factor in the impact on nearby property.

The most important case to define these principles in the United States involved the health of a farmer’s chickens.

Known as the ‘United States versus Causby,’ the challenge unfolded during World War II when noisy military aircraft started flying from the Greensboro-High Point Airfield and over Thomas Causby prosperous chicken farm near in North Carolina.

The constant roar of planes sent Causby’s 400 chickens into a frenzy and they stopped laying eggs, ruining his livelihood.

The farmer sued the Federal Government and both the lower courts and the Supreme Court found in his favor, stating that a landowner “owns at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land”. This has been a guiding principle of U.S. law for more than 70 years.

By 1958, Federal regulations evolved to clearly define navigable airspace to include everything that was 500 feet or more above ground level, along with “airspace needed to insure safety in take-off and landing of aircraft”.

The “ad coelum”, or to the sky, doctrine, “had no place in the modern world,” wrote Justice William Douglas in his Causby judgment in 1946, arguing there exists “public highway” in the sky which was part of the “public domain”.

Mackler said the current tensions over drones partly derived from the lack of clarity over the legality of their use.

“People have a visceral reaction to seeing a drone. Unmanned aircraft are something different, something they often don’t expect,” he said.

“But if you know that in advance that a drone is being used by your utility company to inspect the safety of the local power lines, you will be less fearful. Law and technology have always had this tension: it takes time, especially if it has to go through the courts. But it will work its way out.”

(Reporting by Paola Totaro, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit