‘Major Assad-Iranian-Hezbollah ground offensive in Syria planned with Russian air support’
According to Lebanese sources operation aims to recapture territory lost Assad’s government to rebels.
BEIRUT/MOSCOW – Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s government, sources said on Thursday, a further sign of the rapid internationalization of a civil war in which every major country in the region has a stake.
Russian warplanes bombed a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA, the group’s commander said, putting Moscow and Washington on opposing sides in a Middle East conflict for the first time since the Cold War.
The US and Russian militaries will hold talks at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) via video link to seek ways to keep their militaries apart as they wage parallel campaigns of air strikes in Syria, a U.S. defence official said.
Russian jets struck targets near the cities of Hama and Homs in western Syria on the second day of their surprise air campaign, which they launched on Wednesday.
Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the area where it struck is held by a rival insurgent alliance, which unlike Islamic State is supported by US allies including Arab states and Turkey.
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 program Washington says is aimed at supporting groups that oppose both Islamic State and Assad.
“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” Haj Ali said. He said the Russian jets had been identified by members of his group who once served as Syrian air force pilots.
Two Lebanese sources told Reuters hundreds of Iranian troops had reached Syria in the past 10 days with weapons to mount a major ground offensive. They would also be backed by Assad’s Lebanese Hezbollah allies and by Shi’ite militia fighters from Iraq, while the Russians would provide air support.
“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” one of the sources said.
SAME ENEMIES, DIFFERENT FRIENDS
Russia’s sudden decision to join the war with air strikes on behalf of Assad, as well as the increased military involvement of Iran, could mark a pivotal turning point in a conflict that has drawn in most of the world’s military powers.
With the United States leading an alliance waging an air war against Islamic State fighters, the Cold War superpower foes Washington and Moscow are now engaged in combat over the same country for the first time since World War Two.
They say they have the same enemies – the Islamic State group of Sunni Muslim militants who have proclaimed a caliphate across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
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