President Vladimir Putin said on Friday Russia is supporting the opposition Free Syrian Army, providing it with air cover, arms and ammunition in joint operations with Syrian troops against Islamist militants.
His statement appeared to be the first time Moscow said it was actually supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents in the fight against Islamic State forces. Putin said last month the Russian air force had hit several “terrorist” targets identified by the Free Syrian Army.
A few hours later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin had been talking about weapons supplies to the armed forces loyal to Assad.
But Peskov did not say Putin had been mistaken or misquoted about supplies to the Free Syrian Army and did not deny weapons were going to the opposition force.
Western and Arab states carrying out air strikes against Islamic State for more than a year say that Russian jets have mainly hit other rebel forces in the west of Syria.
Asked about Putin’s remarks at a briefing, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said it was “unclear to us … whether these claims of support to the FSA are true” and noted that “the vast majority” of Russian air strikes had targeted groups opposed to Assad.
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, speaking at a Pentagon news conference after talks with his U.S. counterpart, said Russia “began by bombing the Free Syrian Army” and it was “welcome” news if they were now supporting them.
“What they’ve got to do is stop propping up the Assad regime, stop bombing opposition groups who are opposed to the Assad regime … and get behind the political process that is now under way of leading that country to a more pluralist government and a future without Assad,” he said.
Putin told an annual meeting at the Russian defense ministry that on Friday Russian planes were assisting “in uniting the efforts of government troops and the Free Syrian Army”.
“Now several of its units numbering over 5,000 troops are engaged in offensive actions against terrorists, alongside regular forces, in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa,” he said, referring to the Free Syrian Army.
“We support it from the air, as well as the Syrian army, we assist them with weapons, ammunition and provide material support.”
When asked if Putin had been speaking about the Free Syrian Army, Peskov replied: “Please do not cling to meanings in this case. Such an interpretation is possible.”
“Russia supplies weapons to the legitimate authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic,” he said.
Putin said strikes by Russia’s air force and navy had inflicted heavy damage on the infrastructure of Islamic State, which controls large areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, however, that the influence of Islamic State was increasing in Syria, where militants control roughly 70 percent of the country.
The number of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria is about 60,000, Shoigu said, and there is a threat of violence spilling over into post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Talking to his generals, Putin issued a veiled warning to Turkey, whose downing of a Russian bomber jet near the Syrian-Turkish border last month sent bilateral relations to a freezing point and led Moscow to impose economic sanctions to Istanbul.
“I want to warn those who may again try to stage provocations against our troops,” he said.
“I order you to act in an extremely tough way. Any targets threatening Russia’s (military) group or our land infrastructure must be immediately destroyed,” Putin told the generals.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday called on Russia for calm, but said Turkey’s patience is not unlimited.
TAP – Cameron told Parliament he had 70,000 ground troops ready to fight a ground war supported by Britain’s four tornadoes being deployed from Cyprus. It was plainly nonsense, even though hardly an MP mentioned the fact. The only group that might have fitted the description was the FSA, who are an anti-Assad fighting force, but also an anti-ISIS one. It’s interesting that even with Britain committing her air force (what’s left of it), the FSA has elected to team up with pro-Assad Putin. Michael Fallon’s trying to window dress the move as Putin joining an anti-Assad force, and changing sides against Assad. In fact the FSA can see that Putin does what he says and is credible, while Cameron’s last minute dash to try to replace Putin in the air is not credible at all. Putin was invited in by Assad. Cameron and the British were not. We don’t half look stupid now. Into the bargain, any forces threatening Russian forces in Syria will be destroyed. Britain should get out of the way, and send her forces home.
The mad scramble to get NATO-aligned forces into Syria since Putin arrived in Syria has been ludicrous. Even France has decided to cooperate with Russia. Turkey has obviously not been too keen on its rat run profits being removed. Britain was waiting for the country to collapse so we could go in and clean up making money from Syria’s oil reserves and grab her economy into the City Of London’s central banking system. All was going according to pan with ISIS ripping the country to pieces, literally. Then Putin stepped in and started sorting out the ridiculous mess being created by Cameron and his cronies like Murdoch, Cheney and the Neocons. First Assad sided with him. Then France. Now the FSA. Only Cameron is holding out his loyalty to the New World Order and the western arms industry. IRaq is thinking of throwing out the Americans as Turkey seizes Mosul. Who knows? Will Donald Trump side with Putin next? Cameron’s losing this one, and he’s losing fast.
Any targets threatening Russian forces in Syria must be immediately destroyed – Putin
[CORRECTION: An earlier copy of this story stated that more than 5,000 members of the Free Syrian Army have been operating on the terrorists’ side, according to Vladimir Putin. This was reported as per a wire issued by Sputnik, which was later corrected to Putin’s actual words, in which he said that over 5,000 members of the Free Syrian Army have been fighting AGAINST the terrorists. We have also corrected our report and apologize for this mistake.]
The Russian military’s actions in Syria are being coordinated with Russian special services such as the FSB, who are disclosing terrorist cells, including Islamic State, Putin said.
All forces threatening Russian servicemen in Syria should be destroyed, according to the Russian president.
“Any targets threatening our [military] group or land infrastructure must be immediately destroyed,” Putin said, speaking at a Defense Ministry event.
“In general, the actions of the Russian groups deserve high praise. This is a result of work by the Ministry of Defense, General Staff officers, Russian Air Force pilots and the Russian Navy,” he added.
Putin also said that at the moment more 5,000 members of the Free Syrian Army are fighting alongside the government’s troops against the terrorists.
‘ISIS influence expanding in Syria’ – Russian Def Min
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu added that Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) controls about 70 percent of Syria’s territory, adding that in Syria and Iraq there are about 60,000 militants.
“The Islamic State area of influence is expanding,” he said, “There is a threat that their actions will be transferred to Central Asia and the Caucasus.”
To date the Russian military has carried out about 4,000 sorties, striking around 8,000 terrorist facilities in Syria, he added.
Drones have proved a necessary part of the military operation against the terrorists, according to Shoigu. He said that Moscow has an about 1,720 drones at its disposal.
Both Putin and Shoigu took part in the Defense Ministry board meeting, which apart from the Syrian operation touched upon such issues as nuclear strategy, NATO expansion and Arctic military bases.
“Special attention should be paid to strengthening the combat potential of the strategic nuclear forces and implementing defense space programs,” Putin said during the meeting.
Russia needs to “arm all the components of the nuclear triad with new armaments, raise the efficiency of the missile attack warning and aerospace defense systems,” the Russian president said.
Shoigu added NATO has significantly expanded in Europe.
The US has sited at least 200 bombs in the Netherlands, Turkey, Belgium, Italy and Germany, according to the defense minister.