MOSCOW — Last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped a bombshell when he announced that Russia was providing arms to the Free Syrian Army, a collection of Syrian rebel forces backed by the United States whose main goal is to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's ally.
"I will note specially that the work of our aviation is promoting the integration of efforts with government forces and the Free Syrian Army," Putin said, discussing the results of a Russian airstrike campaign in Syria that began in late September. "Currently several of its units amounting to more than 5,000 men, as well as regular army forces, are carrying out offensive actions against terrorists in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa. Moreover we are supporting them from the air, just like the Syrian army, providing them support in arms, ammunition and material support."
The statement amounted to a reversal, or at least sharp deviation, in Russia's strategy in Syria. Russia's main goal in Syria is to back Assad's government. Moscow has portrayed the opposition to Assad in Syria as dominated by Islamist forces like the Islamic State and dismissed the more moderate Free Syrian Army as impotent or nonexistent. Moscow has also been accused of bombing the Free Syrian Army's positions in provinces where rebel forces were making gains against Assad's government.
At the same time, the Free Syrian Army has uploaded videos of its fighters using U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles to blow up Syrian army tanks advancing under Russian air support. One video also purported to show a TOW missile destroying a downed Russian helicopter in an operation that left one Russian marine dead.
As Syria increasingly takes on the semblance of a proxy war between outside powers including the United States and Russia, it appeared that the Free Syrian Army was on the front lines of that conflict.
So it was not wholly unexpected when Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, later denied that Russia was supplying the Free Syrian Army with weapons, saying that journalists had misinterpreted Putin's statement and that Russia only gives arms "to the legitimate authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic."
As spokesman, Peskov occasionally has to gently correct Putin's statements without saying the president was mistaken. On Friday, Peskov did not say that Putin had been misquoted in the Kremlin transcript or that he had misspoken, instead telling journalists not to "cling to meanings in this case." But there were nagging questions that remained unaddressed, including who were the 5,000 soldiers collaborating with the government's army against the Islamic State. Was Putin referring to the Free Syrian Army or another force in Syria, such as the pro-Assad militias that are fighting alongside the government or Kurdish fighters in Syria's north?
Free Syrian Army commanders, meanwhile, have said that they're not getting help from Moscow and that Russian warplanes have continued bombing their positions.
On Monday, the Russian military reignited speculation about arms deliveries to the Free Syrian Army when armed forces chief of staff Valery Gerasimov repeated Putin's words almost verbatim.
"Now units of the Free Syrian Army, altogether more than 5,000 men together with the regular Syrian army, are launching offensives in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa," Gerasimov said on Monday during a briefing at the military's National Control Defense Center. "The number of such formations of the Free Syrian Army are always growing. For their support alone, Russian aviation daily carries out 30 to 40 strikes. They are also aided with arms, ammunition and material goods."
Peskov on Monday said that the Free Syrian Army units fighting against the Islamic State were "supported by the Russian armed forces," but declined to comment further.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Kozhin, a senior Kremlin adviser on military technology, when asked whether Russia was supplying the Free Syrian Army, gave a curt reply: "No."