MOSCOW, The Free Syrian Army opposition group has denied it is receiving military support from Russia to fight the Isis, despite comments to the contrary from the Kremlin.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday the Russian government is assisting the rebel group with airstrikes.
“It is true that some forces of the Free Syrian Army are involved in offensive operations against the Islamic State and other extremist groups. These offensive operations have support from the Russian armed forces,” Peskov said.
His comments followed those made by Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who noted, “The number of such FSA units is on the rise. The Russian aviation carries out 30-40 airstrikes daily to support them. We also supply them with weapons, ammunitions and materials,” adding FSA troops are fighting IS alongside regulars of the Syrian army in Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa provinces.
The FSA has a strength of about 5,000 troops and is comprised of former members of the Syrian army who have deserted since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011, initially because they refused to fire on civilians protesting the government. Gerasimov described the offensive against IS as a joint effort by FSA and the Syrian military, though FSA has long been in opposition to the regime of Syrian PresidentBashar al-Assad.
FSA spokesman Issam al-Reis said the group would not take part in “assisting a regime that indiscriminately kills their own people.” The rebel group previously refused military aid from Russia because of its support of Assad, and Saturday said Kremlin claims of support were false. FSA Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Ahmed Berri referred to Russia as an aggressor country and said Russian airstrikes on FSA and civilian positions occur almost daily.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said, of reports of Russian cooperation with the FSA, “It’s unclear to us … whether these claims of support to the FSA are true.”
When Russia first began airstrikes in October in Syria, a U.S.-led coalition targeting IS in the country accused Russia of bombing areas held by rebel groups in an effort to prop up Assad. A statement from the coalition in October said “these military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization.”
On Friday, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon, speaking in Washington in a joint press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, noted the perceived change in Russia’s attitude and called for additional help from Russia to defeat IS and withdraw support from the Assad regime.
“They began by bombing the Free Syrian Army. If they’re now … claiming to be supporting the Free Syrian Army, I mean, that is welcome,” Fallon said. “What they’ve got 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 and groups who’ve been fighting Assad; and get behind the political process that is now underway of leading that country to a more — a more pluralist government and a future without Assad.”
By Ed Adamczyk