MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin said on Friday Russia supports the opposition Cost-free Syrian Army, providing it with air assistance, arms and ammunition in joint operations with Syrian troops against Islamist militants.
His statement appeared to be the first time Moscow mentioned it was really 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 a number of “terrorist” targets offered by the Free Syrian Army.
Western and Arab states carrying out air strikes against Islamic State for a lot more than a year say that Russian jets have primarily hit other rebel forces in the west of Syria.
“The function of our aviation group assists in uniting the efforts of government troops and the Totally free Syrian Army,” Putin told an annual meeting at the defense ministry.
“Now several of its units numbering more than 5,000 troops are engaged in offensive actions against terrorists, alongside normal forces, in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa,” he mentioned, referring to the Totally free Syrian Army.
“We support it from the air, as effectively as the Syrian army, we help them with weapons, ammunition and offer material support.”
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.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu mentioned, however, that the influence of Islamic State was escalating in Syria, where militants handle about 70 % of the country.
The number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria totals about 60,000, Shoigu mentioned, and there is a threat of violence spilling more than into post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Speaking to his generals, Putin issued a veiled warning to Turkey, whose downing of a Russian bomber jet near the Syrian-Turkish border final month sent bilateral relations to a freezing point and led Moscow to impose economic sanctions to Istanbul.
“I want to warn those who may possibly again attempt to stage provocations against our troops,” he stated.
“I order you to act in an very 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 earlier on Friday called on Russia for calm, but said Turkey’s patience is not unlimited.
(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov Further reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Vladimir Soldatkin Editing by Christian Lowe and Tom Heneghan)