Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s forces and his allies are preparing to launch a massive ground operation to reclaim Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, from opposition fighters.
Speaking to the Reuters news agency on Tuesday on condition of anonymity, two senior regional officials said regime forces backed by “elite” Hezbollah militants from Lebanon and “thousands” of Iranians were mobilising to retake the city.
The offensive, which the officials said would be launched soon, 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.
Russia has been carrying out air strikes in Syria in support of the regime since Sept. 30 following an approval from lawmakers in Moscow to target ISIS militants in the country.
The US has also been targeting ISIS with air strikes since last year, but has raised concerns that Russian air strikes are actually targeting CIA-trained moderate opposition fighters.
Officials from Washington and Moscow are due to hold military talks on Wednesday over a possible coordination to prevent an inadvertent clash between the two superpowers.
According to the US military, US and Russian fighter jets both entered the same battle space on Saturday during parallel operations.
The UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura said in a news conference on Tuesday that he would hold talks in Russia and then in Washington. De Mistura said the escalating violence made it more urgent to hold dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition groups.
He also hopes to reach an understanding between the US and Russia, in talks in both capitals, one or more "contact groups" will be formed of interested countries supporting the talks.
However, the mainstream opposition, the Syrian National Coalition said that any talks proposed by de Mistura would automatically be rejected.
Meanwhile, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini called the Russian intervention in Syria an unwelcome "game-changer" that jeopardised peace efforts, as EU foreign ministers issued a joint statement for Russian aerial attacks to end, although they couldn’t agree on whether Assad should be included in a peace process.
EU leaders will meet on Thursday for a summit that will probably be dominated with the Syrian conflict, which has claimed more than 250,000 lives and left half of the country’s population displaced either internally or in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and in Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told national TV on Sunday that Russia’s objective in Syria was to "stabilise the legitimate authorities and create conditions for finding a political compromise."
“When a division of international terrorists stands near the capital, then there is probably little desire for the Syrian government to negotiate, most likely feeling itself under siege in its own capital," he added.
On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg slammed Russian efforts to prop up the Assad regime, saying "Russia should play a constructive role in the fight against ISIS. To support the Assad regime is not constructive. This is only prolonging the war in Syria."
Opposition gear-up for Hama battle
As regime forces prepare to siege Aleppo, fighting still rages on in Hama as opposition forces seek to defend the town of Kafr Nabuda, which they captured on Monday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
Ahmed al Seoud, the commander of the Free Syrian Army-affiliated 13th Division, which is backed by the US, told Reuters that a dozen anti-tank missile launch platforms had been stationed in the area to repel a regime offensive.
"They are highly effective. They are breaking the Russian-Iranian and Syrian army," he said. "The situation in terms of ammunition and weapons with the Syrian opposition is excellent."
SOHR head Rami Abdulrahman added that opposition forces were increasingly using TOW anti-tank TOW missiles provided by the US and that the Fatah Army, a coalition of opposition groups plus the Nusra Front, were also defending Kafr Nabuda from being retaken by the regime.
Abu Muhammad al Golani, the leader of the Nusra Front, in the voice record posted on Youtube called all rebels to be unified against the Russian offensive and to escalate the attacks on Assad strongholds in the coastal Latakia governorate.
In his audio message, Golani accused the Syrian regime and Russia of coordination and cooperation with ISIS. He said they are targeting Assad opponents but not ISIS.
Golani also called on Muslims in Russia’s Caucasus region to rebel against Moscow. "If the Russian army kills the people of Syria, then kill their people. And if they kill our soldiers, then kill their soldiers. An eye for an eye," he said.
Two shells landed near the Russian embassy in Damascus on Tuesday, but not casualties were reported.
New anti-ISIS ground coalition
It was reported on Tuesday that US military cargo planes dropped 50 tonnes of ammunition onto a newly formed coalition dubbed Syrian Democratic Forces in the northern Syrian governorate of Hasakah to assist their battle against ISIS.
The drop came after US President Barack Obama admitted Washington’s “train-and-equip” programme to train moderate opposition groups to fight ISIS militants was a failure and that there would be a new approach in Syria.
Instead, the US will depend on Arab fighters, whose commanders are under the supervision of US forces, along with “Kurdish fighters who are more battle-tested and whose loyalties Washington can count on.”
The new coalition is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the PKK, who were recently blamed by London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International for war crimes and destroying more than a dozen villages in the area as a “deliberate, coordinated campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured by ISIS, or where a small minority were suspected of supporting the group."
President of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim, which is in charge of the YPG militias fighting ISIS, also welcomed the Russian intervention in the country, saying “we will fight alongside whoever fights Daesh [ISIS],” said Muslim.
Iranian commanders killed
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hamid Mokhtarband and Brigadier General Farshad Hassounizadeh were 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 also killed in the city of Aleppo while advising the regime on how to defend Shiite shrines in the country.
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, who have been fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.
Their presence around the Golan Heights has spurred occasional Israeli air strikes in the region, killing a number of senior Hezbollah and IRGC commanders.
On Tuesday, Israeli artillery targeted Syrian army sites after two rockets fired from Syria to the Israeli-occupied region of the Golan Heights, Israeli military said.
Around 1,200sq km of the Golan Heights were seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. Later Israel annexed the territory in 1981 after having occupied it for 14 years, but the international community refuses to recognise the annexation.
In 1974, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), UN mission - with about 800 soldiers from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, and the Netherlands - was established to monitor a cease fire line on the Golan that has separated Israel from Syria.