Russia Says It Is Backing Free Syrian Army With Airstrikes and Supplies

A fighter from the Free Syrian Army's al-Rahman legion walks towards his position on the frontline against the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria July 27. Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

Russia is backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with as many as 40 daily airstrikes and helping arm the group, Russian military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on Monday.

Russia began airstrikes on ground targets in Syria during the last week of September and has claimed they are intended to target the militant Islamist group Islamic State (ISIS), though even those within the government can't seem to come to a consensus on that claim. State officials continue to refer to the airstrikes as targeting ISIS, but the Kremlin has made clear that ISIS is only one in a list of groups being targeted.

The Kremlin has not elaborated on which other groups are on the list, but a Reuters analysis of Russian airstrikes in October showed that almost 80 percent of those airstrikes had not hit areas held by ISIS but instead held by opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

According to Gerasimov, the FSA, which initially emerged at the start of the Syrian civil war as a secular militant group working to topple Assad's regime, now has over 5,000 members fighting alongside the Syrian and Russian governments. He added that they are leading an advance side-by-side with the Syrian armed forces in the regions of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa.

"The number of these FSA formations is growing all the time," Gerasimov told RIA Novosti. "The Russian air force carries out 30-40 airstrikes daily only for the benefit of supporting [the FSA]. Also help is being provided to them in the form of arms, battle supplies and material commodities."

Gerasimov said that through these measures, Russia "contributes to the joint effort of government troops and forces of the Syrian opposition to defeat terrorists."

This is the second time in the last few days that Russia is claiming to cooperate with the FSA. Russian President Vladimir Putin told defense officials on Friday that the FSA was leading " offensive actions against terrorists, alongside regular forces, in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa."

He added: "We support [the FSA] from the air, as well as the Syrian army. We assist them with weapons, ammunition and provide material support." But speaking to Reuters, an FSA spokesperson dismissed the suggestion that the group is getting support from Russia. Later that same day, Putin's spokesman declined to elaborate on Putin's claim.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Friday that Washington D.C. is unable to verify claims about cooperation between Russia and the FSA. "It's unclear to us ... whether these claims of support to the FSA are true," he told the press.

In fact, the U.S., NATO and FSA affiliates in Syria have previously complained that Russia is deliberately hitting opposition targets on the ground to prop up the Assad regime and in October an alliance of FSA-linked groups urged Russia to stop targeting them.