Iranian ground forces are pouring into Syria and preparing for action under Russian air cover, in an effort to help Syrian military forces recapture ground taken by rebels, including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisors… we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” a source familiar with the military situation told Reuters.
The source also said Iraqi troops would also be part of the operation.
Until now, Iran’s assistance has taken the form of military advisers and the mobilization of Shiite militia groups in Syria. Forces from the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah have also been fighting alongside Syrian troops.
“The air strikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,” another source told Reuters, referring to the Russian air campaign that began Wednesday morning. “It is possible that the coming land operations will be focused in the Idlib and Hama countryside.”
Also present in this region: Free Syrian Army units allied with the United States. Notably absent: ISIS, which the hapless Obama Administration has been begging the Russians to target.
The UK Telegraph quotes a Syrian source in Damascus, who has “close contacts to regime officials,” saying that Hezbollah units will partner with Assad’s military for a “major ground offensive on rebel-held parts of Homs.” There is no ISIS presence whatsoever in this area, but it will be useful for linking Damascus with Latakia, which Bashar Assad’s Alawite Muslim sect calls home.
The Telegraph’s source said one reason the Russians are hitting non-ISIS rebels early and hard is because they know the United States will work with them on mopping up ISIS, once the survival of the Assad regime is guaranteed.
Israeli officials have declared themselves deeply concerned about the buildup of Iranian forces in Syria. “Nobody wants to see Russian forces in the area of the Golan Heights, but we definitely don’t want to see Iranian forces near Israel,” said infrastructure minister Yuval Steinitz on Tuesday. “In all of our discussions, first and foremost with the United States, but also with Russia and the rest of the world powers, we must make sure that the Iranian forces will stay in Iran.”
The Jerusalem Post notes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to address the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, and will “clarify Israel’s concerns regarding Iranian forces in Syria in discussions with the relevant parties.”
The Post also observes that units of Iran’s Islamic Republican Guard have moved into Syria, while the head of Iran’s dirty-tricks squad, the Quds Force, met last month with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow.