Saturday 1 October 2016

Iran and Hezbollah prepare fresh offensive against Isil

Ruth Sherlock

Published 02/10/2015 | 02:30

A car burns in the countryside of Idlib in northwestern Syria in the aftermath of a Russian air strike
A car burns in the countryside of Idlib in northwestern Syria in the aftermath of a Russian air strike
Rescue workers check in for survivors after the Idlib attack

Hezbollah and the Iranian regime are preparing for a major ground offensive to take on Isil.

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A Syrian from Damascus, with close contacts to top Iranian government officials, said Hezbollah and the Iranian military were preparing to launch troops on the ground to attack rebel-held parts of Homs following the Russian aerial bombardment.

There is no Isil in that area. It is part of a project to secure the area between the Alawite heartland of Latakia and Damascus. In a precursor to potential de facto partition of the country, the regime is focusing on making this area its heartland.

Two sources confirmed yesterday that recent negotiations have been taking place in Zabadani, a flashpoint on the border with Lebanon, aimed at moving its remaining population to rebel-held Sunni-majority Idlib, while repopulating it with people from Shia villages in the north of the country.

The air strikes are not targeting Isil, the Syrian source said, adding: "They want to clean the country of non-Isil rebels and then the US will work with them as Isil will be the only enemy."

At least 12 Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes lined-up on the secondary runway at al-Assad airbase near Latakia, the same airfield hosting the four Russian Air Force Su-30SM multirole combat planes.

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a supremely assured press conference at the UN in New York.

He laughed off reports that Russian air strikes had targeted CIA-trained rebels against President Assad, saying: "Then you know more than me."

Asked whether he would expand the bombing, he replied: "We are not planning to expand our air strikes to Iraq. We are polite people, as you know. We will not come unless we are invited."

And he described his relationship with American Secretary John Kerry, saying: "We talk about bad things nicely."

But behind the bonhomie, it was deadly serious.

He reiterated Moscow's absolute denial that it was doing anything but targeting "terrorists" and said that terrorists included Jabat al-Nusra - but not the Free Syrian Army.

Mr Lavrov said it was hypocritical of the American-led coalition to see the Assad regime as a legitimate partner to work with on chemical weapons, but not to work with it on defeating terrorism.

The Russian foreign minister also dismissed the idea that Isil could be defeated if Assad was defeated.

"Isil will be defeated if only Assad disappears? For me, that is not serious. We have been demonising international leaders.

"Saddam Hussein, hanged - is Iraq safer? Gaddafi, murdered - is Libya a better place? Can we please try to draw lessons?"

And he would not be drawn on any Iran-backed ground invasion, saying only - ominously - that he was not a military planner and that he was working in conjunction with Syrian government forces.

Mr Lavrov said Russia did not consider the opposition Free Syrian Army a terrorist group and it should be part of a political solution in Syria.

Mr Lavrovalso said that the US and Russia "have the same approach: it's Isil, Nusra and other groups".

He defended Russia's actions, asking how the Syrian government could be left out of such a fight in its own country.

Mr Lavrov rejected claims that Syria was being used to distract the world's attention from the fighting in Ukraine.

"It's always possible to find some absurd interpretation of what's going on," he said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the US military in Syria insisted: "We have not altered operations in Syria to accommodate new players on the battlefield."

The US military spokesman said coalition planes conducted several sorties over Syria in the last 24 hours, some of which resulted in air strikes.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the aim of Russian air strikes in Syria was to help the forces of President Assad fight extremist groups such as Isil in areas where the Syrian government is struggling.

"The aim is really to help the armed forces of Syria in their weak spots," he said.

This is the first Russian military operation beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War. But the US and its coalition partners have already conducted over 7,000 air strikes in Syria and Iraq against the so-called Islamic State. And even on the most optimistic assessment their impact has been limited.

Meanwhile, a witness in Syrian described the scene where a mosque was virtually destroyed. There was a body under the ruins and there were eight wounded, among them was a child. The planes used one rocket on the mosque and there was another strike on the old Latakia-Jisr al-Shughour road.

"This was a different explosion. We've seen many bombings by the Syrian air force, but people told me the whole town shook when the Russians struck and the damage and the rubble left behind by their weapons was very big.

"It was out of the ordinary. Syrian air force bombs can't do this," he said.

Irish Independent

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