Russia says it supports the opposition Free Syrian Army for first time

President Vadimir Putin said Russian jets were assisting in uniting the efforts of government troops and the Free Syrian Army, who Syrian president Bashar Al Assad refers to as 'terrorists'.
President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with the head of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, at a meeting with top military officials in Moscow on December 11, 2015. Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with the head of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, at a meeting with top military officials in Moscow on December 11, 2015. Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

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 ISIL forces. Mr Putin said last month the Russian air force had hit several “terrorist” targets provided by the Free Syrian Army.

Western and Arab states carrying out air strikes against ISIL for more than a year say that Russian jets have mainly hit other rebel forces in the west of Syria.

“The work of our aviation group assists in uniting the efforts of government troops and the Free Syrian Army,” Mr Putin told an annual meeting at the defence ministry.

“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.”

Also on Friday, the US state department said secretary of state John Kerry will hold talks next week with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Syria and Ukraine.

Mr Kerry will travel from Paris to Moscow on Monday, after attending a ministerial meeting on Syria in the French capital. The visit comes after the Syrian opposition and rebels agreed on a framework for direct negotiations with the Assad regime.

Rebel group Ahrar Al Sham was reported to have signed up to the agreement, despite earlier saying it had pulled out of the meeting.

Abdulaziz Al Sager, who chaired the meeting, said that an opposition delegation would meet government officials in the first 10 days of January.

The US has warned that some problems remain to be resolved in a pact between Syrian opposition forces if the UN-backed peace talks are to resume.

Inside Syria, ISIL claimed responsibility for a triple suicide truck bomb attack that killed dozens of people in a Kurdish-held town in the northeast of the country late on Thursday.

Three of its fighters driving three separate vehicles blew themselves up targeting “bases” of Kurdish fighters in the town of Tel Tamer e, killing 60 people.

Mr Putin said strikes by Russia’s air force and navy had inflicted heavy damage on the infrastructure of ISIL, which controls large areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Defence minister Sergei Shoigu said, however, that the influence of ISIL was increasing in Syria, where militants control around 70 per cent of the country.

The number of ISIL fighters in Iraq and Syria totals around 60,000, Mr Shoigu said, and there is a threat of violence spilling over into post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Talking to his generals, Mr 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,” Mr Putin told the generals.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier on Friday called on Russia for calm, but said Turkey’s patience is not unlimited.

* Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press

Published: December 11, 2015 04:00 AM

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