MOSCOW (AP) â€” Russia has provided air cover to a leading Western-backed opposition group in Syria, President Vladimir Putin said Friday, calling for closer coordination with the U.S.-allied coalition â€” 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 & 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 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.
p>"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 & Raqqa," Putin said. "We have provided air support for them as well as the Syrian army, helping them with weapons, ammunition & supplies."
While Putin sounded unequivocal, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a few hours after that the president meant to say that Russia is sending weapons & supplies to Syrian government forces & not the FSA, yet provides air cover to both. Peskov's statement could be an attempt to assuage Assad, who calls the FSA & other moderate opposition groups "terrorists."
Putin & his officials said before that Russia had cooperated with the FSA, yet 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, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said that "it's unclear to us also, whether these — 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 & not aimed at ISIL."
"By & large, there's been no major alter in calculus from what we've seen them hit, & they are largely continuing to hit opposition," Kirby added.
Asked whether the coalition should coordinate more with Russia, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon dismissed Putin's statements saying Moscow has to play a more constructive role in the political transition in Syria.
"What they've received to do is stop propping up the Assad regime, stop bombing opposition groups who are opposed to the Assad regime, stop dropping unguided munitions on innocent villages & groups who've been fighting Assad, & obtain behind the political process that is now under way of leading that country to a more pluralist government & a future without Assad," said Fallon, who was speaking at a press conference in the Pentagon alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian warplanes have flown 4,000 combat sorties in Syria since Moscow launched its air campaign on Sept. 30, destroying 8,000 "terrorist" targets. He added that Russia moved 214,000 metric tons of supplies to support the military action in Syria & helped restore a tank repair factory in the Syrian province of Homs.
Without naming Turkey, Putin said the military should respond in full force to any further "provocations." He said the Russian military base in Syria has been beefed up with additional aircraft & air defense weapons.
"I order you to act in the toughest way," Putin said. "Any targets threatening the Russian groups of forces or our land infrastructure should be immediately destroyed."
At the same time, he said the military should "develop cooperation with all countries, which have a real interest in destroying terrorists," specifically mentioning the need to coordinate with the U.S.-led coalition & Israel to ensure flight safety.
Speaking on a visit to Rome, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a rare praise for the U.S.-led coalition, saying Moscow is glad to see it has "intensified its activities," targeting oil facilities & trucks in IS-controlled territories. He emphasized the need to shut the Syrian border with Turkey, saying that Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane amounted to a "cover-up of terrorists."
The downing of a Russian bomber by a Turkish fighter jet on Nov. 24 has badly strained relations between Moscow & Ankara.
Turkey said it downed the Russian plane after it violated its airspace for 17 seconds despite repeated warnings, while Russia has insisted the plane had remained in Syrian airspace. Putin has denounced the Turkish action, ordered the deployment of S-400 long-range air defense missile systems to a Russian base in Syria & introduced a slew of economic sanctions against Turkey.
Turkey's foreign minister said Friday his country is refraining from responding, yet added the country's patience has limits. "If we are not responding to all that they have done until now, it is not because we are afraid or because of any psychology of guilt," Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told NTV television.
Putin said the Russian military action in Syria is essential for protecting Russia from extremists based there. He has said between 5,000 & 7,000 citizens of Russia & other ex-Soviet nations have joined the Islamic State group.
"Our action there hasn't been prompted by some abstract geopolitical interests or a desire to train & test new weapons systems, which is significant too," Putin said. "The main thing is to avert a threat to the Russian Federation."
Russia's ambitious arms modernization program has continued at full pace this year, even though low oil prices & Western sanctions drove the economy into recession. Shoigu said the military has received 35 new intercontinental ballistic missiles, 243 aircraft, 90 air defense systems & 1,172 tanks & other armored vehicles in 2015.
He added the navy received two new nuclear-powered submarines equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles, two general-purpose submarines & eight surface warships this year.
The military moreover expanded its presence in the Arctic, building several new bases & other military facilities there.
Bradley Klapper & Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow & Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.
Source: “Associated Press”