At least 1,000 troops from Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah were massing north of the key Syrian city of Aleppo in preparation for an attack on the rebels there, a U.S. senior defense official told The Daily Beast. The coming offensive—what the U.S. military called a “major push”—would be the largest Iranian intervention in Syria since the war began and the strongest sign yet of an increasingly coordinated military campaign by three of the United States’ military foes—Syria, Russia, and Iran.
Where the U.S.-led coalition has struggled to find a credible ground force to partner its airstrikes with, the Syrian regime and its allies are signaling they are rapidly building a military presence on the ground and in the air.
The Iranian troop movements are an attempt by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies to exploit recent Russian airstrikes in Syria and regain at least part of one of the nation’s most important cities, two defense officials told The Daily Beast.
“While the international spotlight has been focused on Russia’s actions, Tehran has also been a strong supporter of Assad. Tehran’s support to date has helped to keep Assad in power but has done little to push back opposition gains,” a U.S. counterterrorism official explained to The Daily Beast. “Iran’s military support to the Assad regime continues to grow.”
Indeed, last week Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani, a senior commander in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, reportedly was killed in Aleppo. And according to Iranian press reports, several top leaders, including the speaker of the parliament and top defense officials, spoke about coordinating military efforts in Syria with Russia.
“Since the Iran-Iraq war ended, Iran has tried to avoid using its own troops to fight regional battles and instead outsourced fighting to Palestinian militants and Shia militias in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. It is a testament of their commitment to Assad that they’re openly sending Iranian troops to fight in Syria,” Karim Sadjadpour, senior Middle East Program associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Daily Beast.
Syrian officials have also said they are planning an offensive.
U.S. officials believe that in addition to Iranian forces, Russian ground forces are in Aleppo to lead the campaign’s command and control and mobile artillery. The officials could not say how many ground forces are involved.
Nor could they say when the move on the city could begin, but as a defense official noted: “There is no advantage to sitting around.”
“This is a major push on the city,” the official added.
If the joint operation successfully claimed any part of Aleppo back for the Syrian regime, it also would be the first win for Assad in a major city.
But that is a big if. The Assad regime is bringing a battered, depleted ground force to Aleppo, where opponents are deeply entrenched. And two weeks into the Russian air campaign, Damascus’s forces have failed to exploit the addition of the strikes from above.
“The Russian air force is not well integrated with the Syrian ground troops yet,” a second defense official said.
But any kind of turf gain in Aleppo is a potential win for Assad, Iran, and Russia. The city has historically been one of the most important in Syria. Since the war started, it has largely been out of anyone’s control.
Syrian regime attempts to take back less significant territory have faltered so far, even as Russia has launched punishing strikes against Assad opponents in western Syria, forcing rebels to readjust to keep their territories intact. In areas north of the western city of Hama—in the Sahl al-Ghab plain, for example—Syrian forces only could take back a single village earlier this week before being forced to quickly surrender. Syrian troops have gained villages elsewhere in Russian-targeted areas, but nothing substantial, the second U.S. defense official said.
“What appears to be happening is that the Syrians attempt some offensive maneuvers, but the strikes haven’t been enough to weaken the opposition. So Syrian forces can’t break through,” the second defense official said.
While it is unclear to what extent U.S. officials anticipated Russia’s campaign, they have been studying Russia’s strikes—and Assad’s reactions to them—ever since they began Sept. 30. Before Tuesday, Russia had launched roughly 80 airstrikes, Army Col. Steven Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria, told reporters. Of those, roughly 20 percent targeted Aleppo, the second defense official said.
That compares to 64 airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, according to Pentagon statistics. Of those, 61 were conducted by the United States, the data shows.
The two-week campaign of strikes suggests Russia has had a two-tier approach, U.S. officials said. In the western cities of Homs and Hama, where Russia has launched the bulk of its air attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have targeted and weakened Assad opponents outside the self-proclaimed Islamic State (PDF).
“Consistent with Putin’s stated goal of propping up the regime, it would appear they will continue to focus their efforts to push back recent opposition gains made in the northwest of the country. Those gains represent the most proximate threat to the regime. Reports of pro-regime offensives buoyed by Russian airstrikes in and around the provinces of Latakia, Hama, and Idlib—among others—are the clearest signs that Assad and his allies are looking to reconnect regime strongholds that had been lost by opposition gains made over the summer,” one U.S. intelligence official explained to The Daily Beast.
At the same time, a second set of Russian strikes have targeted Aleppo, giving Assad’s forces their first chance in a long time to take back a major city.
Aleppo has been the centerpiece of fighting for three years, after rebels led by the local al Qaeda affiliate first seized the city. The former commercial hub now is home to the toughest opposition forces in Syria. Indeed, every kind of opposition force operates there, including ISIS, as well as the Syrian army. As recently as this week, ISIS reportedly made gains in Aleppo, in part by taking advantage of the Russian airstrikes.
So now the question becomes: Can Iranian forces succeed where Syrian troops have failed?