MOSCOW: Russia’s air force in Syria is ready to support the Free Syrian Army, the main Western-backed opposition group battling Bashar al-Assad, in its fight against Islamic State, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday.
“We are ready to also support patriotic opposition, including the so-called Free Syrian Army, from the air,” Lavrov said in an interview with Russian television channel.
“The main thing for us is to approach the people fully in charge of representing these or those armed groups fighting terrorism among other things,” he said, according to a transcript released by the state-controlled channel.
Lavrov’s comments came after he and his US counterpart John Kerry agreed in Vienna on Friday to explore new ways of trying to reach political settlement to a crisis that has killed more than 250,000 people since 2011.
The Vienna meeting, which also included the foreign ministers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, “succeeded in surfacing some ideas which I’m not going to share today but which I hope have a possibility of ultimately changing the dynamic,” Kerry told reporters on Friday.
Russia’s position appears to be shifting, with Moscow saying it is prepared to give military and political support to the moderate anti-Assad opposition in its fight against Islamic State militants.
Moscow, in talking about the Syrian opposition, had previously reserved the term “patriotic” or “healthy” for those groups that backed Assad against the rebels.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned the world by hosting Assad for surprise talks at the Kremlin, the Syrian leader’s first known foreign visit since the outbreak of unrest.
After the meeting with the Syrian leader Putin said he and Assad had discussed Russia’s possible support for armed rebels in Syria.
“I asked him: what do you think if we find armed Syrian opposition which is ready to oppose and truly fight terrorists, the IS,” Putin told the Valdai Club of political analysts and journalists in Sochi.
“What would you think if we support their efforts in the fight against terrorists in the same way we are supporting the Syrian army?”
“He replied: ‘I would view this positively.’”
“We are now thinking about this and trying to implement these agreements, if it works out,” Putin added.
Western countries have repeatedly accused Russia of targeting Western-backed opposition groups in air strikes that Moscow says are aimed at Islamic State militants, and of making little distinction between militants and moderate rebels.
Lavrov reiterated that Russia expected the West to help Moscow identify areas conntrolled by the moderate opposition and build bridges with the Free Syrian Army and other moderate rebels.
“The Americans’ refusal to coordinate their anti-terrorist campaign with us is a major mistake,” Lavrov said on Saturday.
“We are ready for this coordination to be as deep as possible.”