Iranian ground troops are reportedly amassing on Aleppo as they prepare to assist Bashar al Assad’s regime forces to reclaim Syria’s largest city from opposition rebels.
Speaking to NBC News on Wednesday, US defense and military officials said that the Iranian troops were being joined by Hezbollah militants from Lebanon for what they predict will be a "major assault on Aleppo" to retake “what was once an Alawite stronghold for the Assad regime."
Bashar al Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, had been on the back foot in Syria’s four-and-a-half-year-old conflict before Russian air strikes targeted opposition forces that began on Sept. 30.
A day earlier, two senior regional officials told Reuters news agency, on condition of anonymity that “thousands” of Iranians were planning to take part in the offensive.
Although the US officials said they could not confirm the number of Iranian troops, they said their number was "substantial."
However, a US official cited in the Washington Post said that the number of troops deployed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force were in the “hundreds.”
Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who has been assisting the Baghdad-based Iraqi central government in their fight against ISIS militants in recent months, was reportedly pictured addressing regime forces in Syria this week.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the Iranian troops arrived in Syria through the Hmaymim Airport, otherwise known as the Assad International Airport, in the regime’s Alawite stronghold, the coastal governorate of Latakia.
Iranians are also being deployed in the central Hama governorate, SOHR claimed.
On the other hand, the regime’s information minister Omran al Zoubi told Iranian media that Iranian officers were only advising the regime, dismissing reports of an Iranian build-up in the country.
The offensive on Aleppo will see the regime expand northwards towards the Turkish border from the Hama governorate, where they pushed back opposition fighters last week, with the help of Russian air strikes.
Iranian commanders have been active in the war in Syria, where they have mainly been advising Hezbollah militants around the Lebanese border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Their presence around the Golan Heights has spurred occasional Israeli air strikes in the region, killing a number of Hezbollah operatives and Iranian commanders, including Hezbollah commander Abu Ali Tabatabai and Iranian commander Mohammad Ali Allahdadi in January.
Among ten others killed during the air strike was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh - a senior Hezbollah commander killed by Israel in Damascus in 2008 - and Mohammed Issa, who was responsible for the organisation’s operations in Syria and Iraq.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hamid Mokhtarband and Brigadier General Farshad Hassounizadeh were also killed in Syria on Monday, while assisting the regime fight against ISIS, Iranian media reported.
Their deaths come just days after Iranian General Hossein Hamadani was killed by ISIS militants in Aleppo while advising the regime on how to defend Shiite shrines in the country.
ISIS advance despite air strikes
Before Russian air strikes began targeting Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo, ISIS presence in the city had been minimal, but the dispersal of opposition fighters allowed ISIS to capture the villages of Tel Aqrah, Tel Susin and Kafr Kars as well as the Madraset Al Mushah military base.
According to SOHR head Rami Abdelrahman, the villages had previously been held by the opposition since 2012, bringing them just 20 kilometres away from Aleppo.
Initially, Russia claimed their aerial campaign in Syria was only targeting ISIS militants, but the aim of the mission was later expanded to target other groups considered by Russia to be terrorist organisations as well.
The US has raised concerns over Russian air strikes hitting CIA-trained opposition fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with US State Department spokesman, John Kirby last week saying that more than 90 percent of Russian air strikes have not targeted ISIS.
Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Russia views the FSA as a terrorist organisation, but also doubted the existence of the umbrella group of loosely aligned opposition brigades led by Syrian army defectors.
The Assad regime, meanwhile, views all armed opposition groups including the FSA as terrorist organisations.
Over four years of fighting in Syria has left over 250,000 Syrians dead, according to UN estimates. More than 6.7 million are displaced internally while at least 5 million have fled the country to the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.