Iran sends fighters to Syria to support Assad's battle preparations for Aleppo
Thousands of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join the regime's military forces and Hizbollah allies to launch a ground attack against insurgents in Aleppo, two senior regional officials have said.
Control of Aleppo city and the surrounding province in the area near the Turkish border is divided among the Syrian government, insurgent groups fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State (Isil) that controls some rural areas near the city.
"The big battle preparations in that area are clear," one of the officials said.
"There is a large mobilisation of the Syrian army ... elite Hizbollah fighters, and thousands of Iranians who arrived in stages in recent days."
Isil and other insurgents, including groups backed by Assad's foreign enemies, have been fighting each other north of the city in an area of territory where Turkey and the United States have been laying plans to crush Isil, which controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq.
The offensive, which both officials said would begin soon, would expand on a ground attack by the same alliance last week that is targeting rebels in Hama province farther west.
The officials said thousands of Iranian troops had arrived to take part in the offensives in support of Assad. Earlier yesterday, 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.
With support from Russian air strikes, which began on September 30, and help from Lebanon's Hizbollah 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.
Russia's two-week-old air campaign has bolstered Assad and left the United States struggling to adjust its military support programme for Assad's opponents.
The United States and Russia are conducting separate air campaigns in Syria, which they have said are targeting Isil.
But Washington has said Moscow's campaign has mainly targeted other insurgent groups, including those that have fought Isil. Russia has denied the allegation.
Meanwhile, in an audio message yesterday, Isil urged Muslims to launch a "holy war" against both Russians and Americans.
"Islamic youth everywhere, ignite jihad against the Russians and the Americans in their crusaders' war against Muslims," said Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, Isil spokesman.
The United States and Russia are due to hold another round of military talks today, as the two adversaries seek to avoid an inadvertent clash during their bombing campaigns over Syria.