Russia, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Army working together? Anybody remotely familiar with the Syrian conflict would say that sounds like a scenario straight from cloud cuckoo land — but that's what Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed was happening on Friday morning.
The Russian military had been giving weapons, ammunition and air support to the FSA, Putin told an annual Defense Ministry meeting, and helping it with joint operations with regular Syrian forces against Islamist militants.
"The work of our aviation group assists 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," Putin said. "We support it from the air, as well as the Syrian army, we assist them with weapons, ammunition and provide material support."
The FSA is a heterogeneous coalition made up of around a dozen armed groups operating in different parts of the country, and it is unclear which Putin was referring to. Western-backed FSA brigades have repeatedly said that Russia is in fact targeting them with air strikes along with other rebels fighting against President Bashar al Assad's forces, rather than Moscow's stated aim of hitting the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Rebel leaders remain staunch opponents of the Syrian regime, and taking part in join operations with government troops would be unheard of.
There has been fighting in Aleppo province between the coalition of FSA fighters and Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Islamist opposition groups, including al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra , which are also allied with some FSA-affiliated factions.
Some Turkish media outlets reported last month that Russia had already carried out strikes in support of the YPG and SDF in northern Syria. One possibility is that Putin was referring to the SDF factions or the YPG when he said Russia was assisting the FSA.
Turkish leaders have described the YPG — which also receives air support from the US — as a terrorist group due to its affiliations with the PKK. Tensions between Ankara and Moscow have also been high due to Russia's backing of Turkish foe Assad.
At the same meeting, Putin ordered Russia's military to act in an "extremely tough way" in Syria, saying anybody threatening the Russia military there must be "immediately destroyed."
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu told the meeting that the influence of Islamic State was rising, with the group now controling about 70 percent of Syria's territory and numbering around 60,000 militants in Iraq and Syria.
There was a threat of violence spilling over into post-Soviet Central Asia, he warned.
Shoigu said the Russian military had so far carried out about 4,000 sorties, striking around 8,000 terrorist facilities in Syria, he added.
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Reuters contributed to this report.
Photo via Flickr