Friday 23 March 2018

Iranian troops reportedly crossing into Syria to prop up Assad's regime

A Hezbollah fighter looks toward Syria from Lebanon (AP)
A Hezbollah fighter looks toward Syria from Lebanon (AP)

David Kearns

Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad's government.

As Russian warplanes allegedly bombed a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA, reports are coming in that hundreds of Iranian troops have begun crossing into Syria as part of a major ground offensive against militant groups opposed to Assad's regime.

"The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers..." Reuters reports, quoting two Lebanese sources.

"[There] are hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more," one of the sources said. 

Read More: 'Russia's intent is to prolong the life of Assad' - US backed Syrian rebels accuse Moscow of bombing them

The Iranian troops will be used as part of an operation aimed at recapturing territory lost by President Bashar al-Assad's government to rebels.

The two sources point to an emerging military focus on recapturing areas of northwestern Syria that were seized by insurgents in rapid advances earlier this year.

An alliance of insurgent groups including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and powerful Ahrar al-Sham made rapid gains in Idlib province earlier this year, completely expelling the government from the area bordering Turkey.

Thus far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisors.

The country has also mobilised Shi'ite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

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Lebanon's Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, has been fighting alongside the Syrian army since early in the conflict.

These reports come follow a second day of air strikes by Russia, which launched a number of sorties using Sukhoi warplanes to hit four Islamic State targets.

Syria President Bashar al-Assad's regime is being probed by French investigators for crimes against humanity (AP)
Syria President Bashar al-Assad's regime is being probed by French investigators for crimes against humanity (AP)

However, according to Al-Mayadeen, a pro-Damascus television channel based in Lebanon, none of the areas where it said the strikes took place are held by Islamic State fighter.

Al-Mayadeen said the jets carried out strikes against an insurgent alliance known as the Army of Conquest.

The alliance includes the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian branch but not Islamic State.

The Lebanese news channel said the Russian planes bombed rural areas near the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, which is held by the Army of Conquest.

Read More: Russia begins Syria air strikes as war enters volatile new phase

The strikes also hit other areas in Idlib province, including the Zawiya Mountain region, as well as areas in Hama province to the south.

Insurgent-held Idlib province is of particular strategic importance to the Syrian government because it is close to Assad's heartland on the Mediterranean coast, where Russia also has its only Mediterranean naval base.

Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group, told Reuters one of the targets was his group's base in Idlib province, struck by around 20 missiles in two separate sorties.

His fighters had been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, part of a programme Washington says is aimed at supporting groups that oppose both Islamic State and Assad.

The Russian and Iranian intervention in support of Assad comes at a time when momentum in the conflict had swung against his government and seem aimed at reversing insurgent gains.

Read More: France investigates alleged crimes against humanity by Assad

"The Russian strikes are a game changer. Damascus is off the hook," a diplomat tracking Syria said.

The Army of Conquest in particular has been advancing against government forces in northwestern Syria, supported by regional countries that oppose both Assad and Islamic State.

Russia says its air strikes, unlike Washington's, are legitimate because they have Assad's blessing, and more effective because they can coordinate with government forces to find targets.

A Syrian military source said on Thursday that Russian military support would bring a "big change" in the course of the conflict, particularly through advanced surveillance capabilities that could pinpoint insurgent targets.

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