Syrian rebels are being provided with military support and air cover against Islamist militants, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said. If confirmed would be a shift in Moscow's Syria policy.
Putin said Friday that Russia is supporting the opposition Free Syrian Army, providing it with air cover, arms and ammunition in joint operations with Syrian troops against Islamist militants.
"Several units totaling more than 5,000 people, along with regular troops, are conducting offensive operations against terrorists in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa," Putin said in a speech to military officers. "We have provided air support for them as well as the Syrian army, helping them with weapons, ammunition and supplies."
If confirmed, Russian support for the Free Syrian Army will represent a major policy shift for Moscow, which has been accused of targeting Western-backed foes of Assad instead of its declared goal, the Islamic State group.
But just a few hours later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin had been talking about weapons supplies to the armed forces loyal to Assad.
"Russia supplies weapons to the legitimate authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic," he said.
Syrian rebels had been targeted by Moscow
Officials in Washington appeared puzzled on how to interpret Moscow's claims. US State Department spokesman John Kirby said that "it's unclear to us also, whether these – these claims of support for the FSA are true."
"By and large, there's been no major change in calculus from what we've seen them hit, and they are largely continuing to hit opposition," Kirby added.
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said his country's warplanes have flown 4,000 combat sorties in Syria since Moscow launched its air campaign on September 30, destroying 8,000 targets. He added that Russia had moved 214,000 metric tons of supplies to support the military action in Syria and helped restore a tank repair factory in the Syrian province of Homs.
A US-led coalition of western and Arab states have been launching air strikes against IS fighters in Syria and Iraq for more than a year.
Moscow has had a long strategic relationship with Syria and the dynasty that has ruled the country for decades. Assad - backed by Iran and Russia - has refused to negotiate with militant rebels.
jar/bw (AP, Reuters)