Iran sends in regular troops to bolster Assad’s fight for Aleppo

The Iranian and Russian moves over Syria have certainly increased the chances of the regime staying in place, writes Maha Samara

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made several calls for volunteers to join the jihad in Syria to help the weak regime against the “infidels”.  EPA
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It seems clear that Iran and Russia are coordinating and co-operating in their support for Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria. For the first time, Iran is sending units of its regular army to Damascus, over and above the thousands of Revolutionary Guards who went to Syria as advisers after the outbreak of fighting in 2011.

Iran is also recruiting members of Hizbollah from Lebanon and militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made several calls for volunteers to join the jihad in Syria to help the weak regime against the “infidels”. The recent deaths of more than a 100 guards in Aleppo drove Mr Khamenei to appoint one of the commanders of the Iran-Iraq war, Gen Mohsen Ridaii, as chief of Iranian operations in Syria.

In addition, private Iranian aircraft have been transporting military personnel and machinery to Damascus via Basra at night to avoid detection.

The huge deployment, estimated at 80,000, aims to help the regime win Aleppo, which could be the making or breaking of Mr Al Assad. Iran favours a military solution to the Syrian crisis and adamantly believes in rescuing the regime at any cost. In September last year, Russia joined the effort, using its superior air power to support Syrian and Iranian ground troops.

According to the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, the Iranians have spread their armies over all Syria on many different fronts.

The central command headquarters is near Damascus International Airport and is under the command of the logistical department of the Revolutionary Guards. The site is guarded by up to 1,000 men.

The Chibani barracks north-west of Damascus, formerly the headquarters of Mr Al Assad’s presidential guard, now holds up to 6,000 men, including members of the Syrian army, the Revolutionary Guards, Hizbollah and Shiraz Dawn. It could play a significant role as a defensive front line should the presidential palace fall under attack.

On the southern front, the Iranians are active in Zeinab barracks, a former university campus that reaches between Damascus and Deraa up to the Jordanian border. It houses a tank division, a pro-regime Syrian militia and members of the Afghan Hazaras militia.

Also in this area, Hizbollah control the Yarmouk base and the guards control the Izraa base near the town of Shaykh Miskeen, where there is a Sam 1 missile base.

On the eastern front, the guards’ positions are concentrated in the village of Al Dhamir on the Damascus-Baghdad highway. There are three barracks in the Homs region and Shouayrat military airport, where two regiments are based. The Syrian military also controls a military airport 50 kilometres from Palmyra.

On the coastal front, there are 2,000 Syrians in a former Syrian Youth military base in Latakia. This is the centre of operations against the Kurds and the Turkmen who live and fight in the mountains.

On the northern front, the guards have a command centre and base in south-east Aleppo, and barracks near Salma close to the Turkish border.

The guards are concentrating their efforts in this region, as the fight for Aleppo could determine the direction of the war.

Nobody knows what the consequences of this huge military build up will be. The aim may be to prolong the war and then impose a solution after all the fighting parties are exhausted. The Iranian and Russian moves have certainly increased the chances of the regime staying in place.

Mr Khamenei and Russian president Vladimir Putin are still sticking by Mr Al Assad, disapproving even of a transitional government. Russian diplomatic manoeuvring inside and outside the Geneva talks seems to have convinced the Americans that Mr Al Assad’s presence is necessary to avoid chaos.

The Iranians are also betting, correctly so far, on United States president Barack Obama’s continued reluctance to enter the Syrian fray.

Maha Samara is a journalist in Beirut