Reuters News By Laila Bassam and Andrew Osborn Posted Thurs., Oct.01, 2015
Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Lebanese 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, in a second day of strikes, 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 U.S. and Russian militaries were due to hold talks via video link to seek ways to keep their militaries apart as they wage parallel campaigns of air strikes in Syria, a U.S. defense official said.
Russian jets struck targets near the cities of Hama and Homs in western Syria on the second day of their air campaign.
Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the areas it struck are mostly held by a rival insurgent alliance, which unlike Islamic State is supported by U.S. allies including Arab states and Turkey.
Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group which is part of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters one of the targets was his group’s base in Idlib province, struck by around 20 missiles in two separate raids. 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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said later that Moscow was targeting Islamic State and did not consider the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army a terrorist group, adding that they should be part of a political solution in Syria.
The aim is to help the Syrian armed forces “in their weak spots”, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
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 Russia 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.
So far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisers. Iran has also mobilized Shi’ite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.