Troops have joined the Syrian regime's military forces and Hizbollah allies in preparation for a ground attack in the Syrian city, say officials
People gather around the rubble of buildings after an airstrike in the outskirts of Aleppo earlier this month Photo: Rased News Network via AP
By Louisa Loveluck and Nabih Bulos in Beirut
9:59AM BST 14 Oct 2015
Iran has sent hundreds of troops into Syria under the cover of Russian airpower in preparation for an attack on rebels fighting government troops.
Tehran’s first major deployment in Syria’s civil war appeared to be paving the way for a major regime-backed offensive against rebel forces around the shattered second city of Aleppo.
Iran has been the regime’s closest ally throughout the four-year conflict, bankrolling President Bashar al-Assad's war effort and sending top military advisers to direct the fight on key battle fronts.
Iranian and Syrian officials have long maintained that Tehran has advisers and military experts in Syria, but Wednesday's news was the first confirmation of Iranian fighters taking part in combat operations.
A regional official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the troops fighters began arriving in Syria as Russia began its airstrikes against rebel positions around the regime's western heartland.
He said troops were arriving in the capital, Damascus, before travelling to Mr Assad's coastal stronghold of Latakia for deployment in the central province of Hama or north into Aleppo province.
Russian helicopters and warplanes have been supporting a regime ground offensive in Hama to push Islamist and relatively moderate rebel groups from a strategically important plain at the base of Latakia.
"The groundwork is now prepared for destroying the Takfiri groups in Syria," said Hussein Dahqaan, the Iranian defence minister, refering to Sunni Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy.
Although the extent of Tehran's coordination with Moscow remains unclear, their latest interventions will threaten rebel-held Aleppo and raise tensions with the insurgents' Gulf backers.
In northeastern Aleppo, a coalition of rebel groups have been pincered by regime forces to the south and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) militants to the north, threatening a crucial supply line.
The magnitude of Iran's involvement on the ground remains shrouded in secrecy but combat deaths are known to be increasing. Syrian opposition activists have compiled the names of at least 50 Iranian military personnel believed to have been killed in Syria since the start of the war.