Middle East

Iran troops to join Syria war, Russia bombs group trained by CIA

Wearing ghilli suits, Iranian army troops march in a military parade for the 35th anniversary of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, in front of the shrine of late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

BEIRUT/MOSCOW: 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 sign the civil war is turning still more regional and global in scope.

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.

Speaking by video link for an hour, U.S. and Russian military officials discussed ways to ensure their warplanes do not come into conflict as they carry out separate air campaigns over Syria, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. He said it was the first in a series of conversations.

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 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 mobilised Shi'ite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the areas it struck near the cities of Hama and Homs 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 programme 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.

The group is one of at least three foreign-backed FSA rebel factions to say they had been hit by the Russians in the last two days.

At the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference Moscow was targeting Islamic State. He did not specifically deny that Russian planes had attacked Free Syrian Army facilities but said Russia did not view it as a terrorist group and viewed it as 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.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook described Thursday's military talks as "cordial and professional" and said a U.S. official raised concerns that areas targeted by Russian aircraft in Syria were not Islamic State strongholds.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the United Nations on Thursday: "Instead of lone decisions by Russia to take direct military action in Syria we need Russia to take political action advocating transition in Syria."

SAME ENEMIES, DIFFERENT FRIENDS

Russia's decision to join the war with air strikes on behalf of Assad, as well as the increased military involvement of Iran, could mark a turning point in a conflict that has drawn in most of the world's military powers.

With the United States leading an alliance waging its own air war against Islamic State, 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.

But they also have different friends, and sharply opposing views of how to resolve the 4-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes.

Washington and its allies oppose both Islamic State and Assad, believing he must leave power in any peace settlement.

Washington says a central part of its strategy is building "moderate" insurgents to fight Islamic State, although so far it has struggled to find many fighters to accept its training.

Moscow supports the Syrian president and believes his government should be the centrepiece of international efforts to fight the extremist groups.

It appears to be using the common campaign against Islamic State as a pretext to strike against groups supported by Washington and its allies, as a way of defending a Damascus government with which Moscow has been allied since the Cold War.

The Russian strikes represent a bold move by President Vladimir Putin to assert influence beyond his own neighbourhood: it is the first time Moscow has ordered its forces into combat outside the frontiers of the former Soviet Union since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign in the 1980s.

The Russian and Iranian intervention in support of Assad comes at a time when momentum in the conflict had swung against his government and seem aimed at reversing insurgent gains.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of neighbouring Iraq, where Washington is also leading an air war against Islamic State while Iran aids government forces on the ground, said he would be open to Russian strikes as well.

A Syrian military source said on Thursday that Russian military support would bring a "big change" in the course of the conflict, particularly through advanced surveillance capabilities that could pinpoint insurgent targets.

Putin's gamble of going to war in Syria comes a year after he defied the West to annex Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, drawing U.S. and EU economic sanctions while igniting a wave of popular nationalist support at home.

He appears to be betting that decisive action to aid Assad will improve Russia's position at future talks on a political settlement, safeguard its control of the naval base and limit the influence of regional rivals like NATO member Turkey. It could also help his image at home as a strong leader willing to challenge global rivals, first and foremost the United States.

 

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