Using Russian airstrikes as protection, Iran has moved hundreds of troops into Syria, the Associated Press reported today. It is the first time Iran has openly deployed soldiers from its army into Syria’s four-year-old civil war, though it has previously sent armed forces “advisers,” as well as members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Russia began carrying out airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen began a ground offensive against rebels in central Syria a week later. Russia says its airstrikes are meant to weaken the Islamic State group and other terrorists in Syria, but Western officials and Syrian rebels say most the strikes have focused on areas in central and northern Syria where extremist group does not have a strong presence.
The arrival of Iranian troops fighting under the cover of Russian air power further strengthens the view that Russia’s main goal is to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s embattled government.
“Sending more troops from Hezbollah, and Iran only increases the shelf life of the Syrian regime, which is destined to end,” Maj. Jamil Saleh, the leader of Tajammu Alezzah, a CIA-backed Free Syrian Army faction, told The Associated Press. “It will only add more destruction and displacement.”
Iranian troops have long been involved in the fighting, Saleh said, but until now their involvement had been relatively quiet. A regional official with “deep knowledge of operational details in Syria” told the AP that there are now 1,500 Iranian troops in Syria, not including a new influx of Hezbollah soldiers. Iranian troops were flown in to the Damascus airport before being transferred to Latakia, from where they will launch a “huge offensive” against rebels in Aleppo, the source said. According to the AP this is the “first confirmation of Iranian fighters taking part in combat operations,” rather than serving as “advisers,” as Iranian and Syrian officials have maintained until now.
Iran’s top general in Syria, Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani, was killed near Aleppo last week. According to Phillip Smyth, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hamedani was one of three IRGC generals killed in Syria during the past week. Both Iran and Hezbollah “have take some significant high-ranking casualties since the start of their recruitment and deployment drives to Syria,” Smyth wrote today in The Daily Beast.
Reuters reported last week that Russia and Iran were planning joint operations in Syria while simultaneously negotiating against each other over Iran’s nuclear program. IRGC-Qods Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani was reported to have traveled to Moscow in July, despite international sanctions banning him from foreign travel. Iran has been operating a sanctioned airline throughout Europe, reportedly using the domestic airline to ferry troops and weapons to Syria.
[Photo: CCTV News / YouTube ]