Moscow | Russia has provided air cover to a leading Western-backed opposition group in Syria, President Vladimir Putin said, calling for closer coordination with the US allied coalition comments that may reflect Moscow’s desire to narrow its differences with the West over the Syrian crisis.
At the same time, Putin vowed to further modernize Russia’s military and said its forces in Syria will immediately destroy any target threatening them, a strong warning to Turkey following its downing of a Russian warplane at the Syrian border. Speaking at a meeting yesterday with top Defense Ministry officials, Putin said while supporting the Syrian government forces, Russia has backed some units of the Free Syrian Army, a Western-backed opposition group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army.
Several (FSA) units totaling more than 5,000 people, along with regular troops, are conducting offensive operations against terrorists in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa, Putin said. We have provided air support for them as well as the Syrian army, helping them with weapons, ammunition and supplies.
While Putin sounded unequivocal, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a few hours later that the president meant to say that Russia is sending weapons and supplies to Syrian government forces and not the FSA, but provides air cover to both. Peskov’s statement could be an attempt to assuage Assad, who calls the FSA and other moderate opposition groups terrorists.
Putin and his officials said before that Russia had cooperated with the FSA, but the group’s representatives have denied that. If confirmed, Russian support for the FSA will represent a major policy shift for Moscow, which has been accused by the West of striking moderate rebels to back up Assad instead of its declared goal, the Islamic State group.
Asked to comment on Putin’s claim, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said that it’s unclear to us also, whether these claims of support for the FSA are true. He reaffirmed that the vast majority of airstrikes conducted by Russian military aircraft are against opposition groups to Assad and not aimed at ISIL. By and large, there’s been no major change in calculus from what we’ve seen them hit, and they are largely continuing to hit opposition, Kirby added.
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