Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Moscow is supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Syria’s main armed opposition group, in the fight against DAESH terrorist group, which has overrun much of the country.
Speaking at an annual Defence Ministry meeting on Friday, Putin said Russia had provided arms and ammunition to the FSA, adding that Russian fighter jets had carried out several air strikes on DAESH positions, which had been provided by the FSA.
"The work of our aviation group assists in uniting the efforts of government troops and the Free Syrian Army," Putin said in his statement to the assembly.
"We support it from the air, as well as the Syrian Army, we assist them with weapons, ammunition and provide material support."
According to Putin’s statement, the fight against DAESH has united 5,000 FSA fighters with Bashar al Assad’s regime forces in the governorates of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa.
Despite this, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that DAESH influence in Syria is spreading, pointing out that the terrorist group currently has 60,000 militants spread across the country as well as in neighbouring Iraq.
Shoigu also expressed his concerns that DAESH could extend its reach to former Soviet lands including Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Russia has been conducting air strikes in Syria since Sept. 30, after the Kremlin voted in favour of a military campaign against DAESH.
However, concerns have been raised by the US and its allies that most Russian air strikes have been targeting Syrian opposition forces fighting against the Assad regime in areas where there is no, or minimal, DAESH presence.
Such air strikes have reportedly targeted US-backed groups affiliated with the FSA, including ethnic Turkmen groups near the border with Turkey.
In an incident that occurred last month, Turkish F-16s downed a Russian Su-24 fighter jet that had allegedly violated Turkish airspace, despite numerous warnings.
The incident, which left one Russian pilot and a member of the Russian rescue team sent to save another pilot dead, led to a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Russia.
Regarding Turkey, Putin said, "I want to warn those who may again try to stage provocations against our troops," before going on to tell his generals, "Any targets threatening Russia's (military) group or our land infrastructure must be immediately destroyed."
Rival FSA groups
The past month has particularly seen an intensification of Russian air strikes on opposition-held territory around the border town of Azez, with Jaysh al Thuwar, an Arab coalition formed in May with a number of small groups and local brigades previously aligned to the FSA, moving into those areas alongside the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on their way to take the Bab al Salam crossing, a key supply route for the opposition.
Jaysh al Thuwar has been cooperating with the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, which is affiliated to the southeastern Turkey-based PKK terrorist group, in the self-proclaimed cantons of Afrin and Kobane along the Turkish border.
Should the region fall to the YPG, they will be able to form a corridor linking Kobane to the east and Afrin to the west, thus taking full control of the Syrian side of the Turkish border, where they seek to establish their Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Turkey previously warned the YPG not to advance west of the Euphrates river, which separates Kobane from Afrin, and has long stated its opposition to the YPG taking control of northern Syria.
Turkey has long called for the establishment of a no-fly zone in the area between Afrin and Kobane for Syrians displaced by the war, which has claimed at least 250,000 lives since it started in March 2011.
The SDF - which was recently formed with the support of the US to fight DAESH terrorists - includes Jaysh al Thuwar, the Burkan al Firat Operations Center, the Al Sanadid Forces and the Brigade Groups of Al Jazeera, the Assyrian Military Council and the YPG’s female wing the YPJ, but its members largely consist of YPG militants.
However, the YPG-led coalition has also been fighting the Fatah Army, a coalition of opposition groups including Ahrar al Sham and a number of FSA brigades, which in March took full control of the Idlib governorate from the Assad regime.