Iranian troops, allied Hezbollah fighters, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s army have reportedly joined forces to launch a ground offensive, backed by Russian airstrikes, to seize key areas from rebels in Syria.
“Russia has also initiated a joint ground offensive with the Syrian regime, shattering the facade that they’re there to fight [the Islamic State],” acknowledged U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at an Association of the U.S. Army event Wednesday. “This will have consequences for Russia itself, which is as I said rightfully fearful of an attack on Russia.”
“Now Russia has to opportunity to change course and rejoin the track where it’s genuinely fighting extremism, rather than fueling extremism, and participating in a political transition in Damascus, I don’t know if they will,” he added.
Hundreds of Iranian forces are being deployed to northern and central Syria to join fighters with Iranian proxy Hezbollah “in an ambitious offensive to wrest key areas from rebels amid Russian airstrikes,” reported the Associated Press (AP) on Wednesday.
An unnamed official with deep knowledge of operational details in Syria revealed to AP that “the Iranian Revolutionary Guards — currently numbering around 1,500 — began arriving [in Syria] about two weeks ago, after the Russian airstrikes began, and have accelerated recently.”
He also told AP that Hezbollah has sent new fighters to Syria.
Prior to the recent deployment of Iranian troops and Hezbollah militants, retired U.S. Gen. John M. Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army who is now the chairman of the Institute for The Study of War (ISW), told the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 8 that the number of Iranians in Syria far outnumber the Russians—7,000 to 100-plus.
“Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said thousands of Iranian troops had arrived to take part in the offensives in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” noted the report.
The deployment of Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters is expected to dramatically escalate Iran’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.
“Their arrival, a regional official and Syrian activists said Wednesday, highlights the far-reaching goals of Russia’s military involvement in Syria,” reported AP. “It suggests that, for now, taking on Islamic State [ISIS/ISIL] extremists in eastern Syria seems a secondary priority to propping up President Bashar Assad.”
“The development is almost certain to increase pressure on Western-backed rebels, who are battling multiple foes, and push more civilians out of the areas of fighting, potentially creating a fresh wave of refugees,” it added.
Reuters, citing two unnamed senior regional officials, reported Tuesday that Assad’s army, Iranian troops, and Hezbollah fighters, all supported by Russian airstrikes, were expected to soon launch a ground attack against militants in Aleppo city, the capital of the Syrian province of the same name.
Control of Aleppo province, which shares a border with Turkey, is divided among the Assad government, rebel groups fighting the Syrian dictator, and ISIS.
“The big battle preparations in that area are clear,” one of the officials familiar with the plans told Reuters on condition of anonymity.” There is a large mobilization of the Syrian army… elite Hezbollah fighters, and thousands of Iranians who arrived in stages in recent days.”
ISIS and other terrorists have been fighting each other for control of Aleppo city.
“Earlier on Tuesday, rebel commanders said Syrian insurgents were deploying extensive supplies of anti-tank missiles provided by their foreign backers to counter ground attacks by the Syrian army and its allies, supported by heavy Russian air strikes,” noted Reuters.
“With support from Russian air strikes, which began on Sept. 30, and help from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian soldiers, the Syrian army is trying to drive insurgents from western areas crucial to Assad’s survival, and has recaptured a number of towns in the provinces of Hama and Latakia,” it added.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of sources on the ground to monitor the Syrian conflict, also reported Wednesday that Iranian troops had been deployed to Syria, adding that they were being transported to a military base in the coastal town of Latakia.
Russia has formed an alliance with Iran, Syria, and Iraq to fight ISIS in Syria.
Late last month, a couple of days before launching its first airstrike in Syria, Moscow, without notifying the U.S., reached an agreement with Iraq, Syria, and Iran to share intelligence on ISIS.