Iran was last night (Thursday) moving up its ground forces in Syria in preparation for an attack to reclaim rebel-held territory under the cover of Russian air strikes, according to sources close to Damascus.
Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia which has come to the Assad regime’s rescue in battlefronts throughout the country in the past two years, is being prepared to capitalise on the strikes, a Syrian figure close to the regime told The Daily Telegraph.
Sources in Lebanon said that Iran, which is the main sponsor and tactical adviser to Hizbollah, was sending in hundreds of its own troops to reinforce them.
Iran made no comment on the claims but Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said the move would be an “apt and powerful illustration” that Russia’s military actions had worsened the conflict.
A Hizbollah-backed advance would fit the pattern of Russian air strikes, which have predominantly targeted those rebels not aligned to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) who currently present the gravest threat on the ground to core regime territory.
The long-term aim would be to defeat or demoralise the non-Isil opposition, so that Isil became the regime’s only enemy. That would force the West to back President Bashar al-Assad against the terror group.
“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,” the Damascus source said.
In the first instance, an attack in north-western Homs province, the apparent chosen battlefront, would help distract the rebel alliance from attacking Latakia, the stronghold of the Alawite minority from which much of the regime is drawn.
It would also secure the corridor from Damascus to the north-west, at least ensuring a clean partition between regime- and rebel-held Syria.
The Russians continued their aerial bombardment yesterday. Targets included Jisr al-Shughour and Jabal al-Zawiya, areas under the control of Jaish al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest, an alliance of Islamist groups which have won significant victories against the regime this year.
They also included Isil targets in Raqqa and Deir Ezzour provinces, including a Syrian air force base which fell to Isil earlier this year.
However, the Kremlin admitted yesterday that objectives included non-Isil targets – something it had previously denied – and that its aim was to shore up the regime “in its weak spots”. “The aim is really to help the armed forces of Syria in their weak spots,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said in New York that its campaign was little different from the American one, which has hit al-Qaeda targets in Syria as well as Isil ones.
“We see eye-to-eye with the coalition on this one,” he said. “We have the same approach: it’s Isil, al-Nusra and other terrorist groups.”
However, rebels claimed that the “other terrorist groups” included moderate elements, some trained by the CIA as part of the American programme for supporting the opposition.
The Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, one of the CIA-backed groups, said it had been hit by 20 missiles in its base in Idlib province. Among the dead from Wednesday’s strikes was said to be a prominent rebel leader in north Homs province, Captain Iyad al-Deek, a former regime officer who defected in the uprising.
Also hit by a strike, said to be Russian, were the outskirts of the town of Kafranabel, one of the best-known centres of secular activist opposition to the regime over the past four years.
The rebels have promised to take the fight to the Russians, some in blood-curdling comments online.
“Is it not time for the knight to mount his steed? Is it not time to cut off the heads? What are we waiting for?
What remains?” said Mohammad al-Maghaweer, who claimed to be a front-line fighter with Jaish al-Fatah.
Another fighter, Mukhlif Hussein al-Tamer, from Idlib, said: “My message to the Russian bear – no matter how much you gather your force in Syria, do not think we are afraid of your failing forces.” The rebels also claimed there were a number of civilians among the dead.
“The mosque was virtually destroyed, and there was a body under the ruins, and there were eight wounded, among them a child,” said Tareq Abdul-Haq, a media activist who visited Jisr al-Shughour after the Russian bombing. He said a “poor, civilian” neighbourhood had been hit. “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.”
Russia is preparing both a United Nations resolution purporting to cover both its bombing campaign and that of the US-led anti-Isil coalition under one formulation, and a new round of peace talks.
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