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Putin says Russia backs Syria opposition, flays Turkey

Vladimir Putin insisted Thursday that Russia is helping some of the Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State jihadists and escalated a row with Turkey, using crude language to accuse its leaders of sucking up to Washington.

Speaking during his annual news conference, the Russian president said Moscow was cooperating with the US over Syria. He reserved his rudest comments for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accusing his government of “licking the Americans in one place”.

Addressing more than 1,300 reporters in Moscow, Putin reiterated claims that Moscow is in contact with the “armed, uncompromising” opposition in Syria, with the rebels immediately shooting down the claim.

“We support their efforts in fighting ISIL with Russian air strikes,” he said, referring to the IS group.

He did not say what rebel groups he was referring to.

Asaad Hanna, a member of the Northern Division, a newly-formed rebel alliance that is part of the loose network of moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, said the claim was “categorically a lie”.

“With these statements, the (Russian) government is trying to create a split within the Free Syrian Army by broadcasting rumours about working with the Russians,” Hanna told AFP.

Moscow insists its military campaign in Syria is aimed at destroying IS and other jihadist groups.

But members of a US-led coalition complain that Russia is mainly hitting groups fighting Syria President Bashar al-Assad, and NGOs and observers have alleged civilian casualties.

Last week, Putin said Russia was backing some 5,000 members of the FSA with weapons and air strikes in joint operations with regime forces.

On Wednesday, FSA chief of staff General Ahmad Berri also denied receiving any Russian support, but said Moscow had provided aid to fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Russian helicopters delivered “equipment and logistical aid” to the Kurdish fighters on at least three occasions in Aleppo province, Berri said.

– Hurling insults at Erdogan –

Putin dedicated the start of his three-hour news conference to lashing out at Turkey, addressing the downing of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border by Ankara last month, and accusing Turkish leaders of toadying to Washington.

“If somebody in the Turkish leadership decided to lick the Americans in one place…” the 63-year-old strongman said to applause from journalists.

“I don’t know if the Americans need that or not.”

The former KGB operative said he did not rule out that Ankara shot down the plane so that Washington would look the other way to let Turkey “go onto Iraqi territory and occupy part of it”.

He said the downing of the bomber was especially disappointing because Moscow agreed at a G20 summit last month to assist Ankara on “very sensitive” issues that apparently contravened international law, though he provided no further details.

“We said: ‘Yes, we understand and are ready to help you,'” Putin said.

Russia announced a raft of economic sanctions against Turkey after the plane was shot down, with ties between the two countries in tatters.

“We find it difficult if not impossible to come to an agreement with the current leadership of Turkey,” Putin said.

“On the state level, I don’t see any prospects of improving relations with the Turkish leadership.”

– UN resolutions on Syria –

Putin also said Moscow supported a US-backed UN draft resolution on Syria, speaking after he hosted US Secretary of State John Kerry for talks in Moscow.

Moscow and Washington say the next round of negotiations, set to take place in New York on Friday, would lead to a UN Security Council resolution to underpin the process aimed at brokering a ceasefire and political talks between Assad’s regime and Syria’s armed opposition.

And on Thursday the Security Council is due to hold a rare meeting of finance ministers to adopt another resolution aimed at squeezing the Islamic State group’s financing.

“On the whole it suits us,” Putin said, referring to the US-backed resolution without specifying which one of the two he was referring too.

He added that he believed the Syrian regime would also accept the draft resolution, calling for both sides to compromise.

He urged joint work on a new Syrian constitution, adding that a “transparent” mechanism is needed to help Syrians conduct democratic elections and elect a leader.

On Friday, the foreign ministers from 17 countries including Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States will convene in New York for a third round of talks on ending Syria’s nearly five-year war.