As Syrian regime forces were poised on Monday to enter Maaret Al Numan, a city of symbolic and strategic importance in the last opposition-held stronghold of Idlib, leaked recordings showed Iran-backed militias were spearheading efforts to recapture the bastion.
The recordings, leaked to the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper, reveal that despite the death of Qassem Suleimani, the general who led Iran's Quds force carrying out operations on foreign soil, Iranian soldiers and allied militias are directing military operations on the ground in Idlib.
The intercepted radio transmissions contain messages between members of the Fatemiyoun Division, an Iran-backed group of Afghan fighters which has been supporting the Assad regime since 2013.
The Afghan fighters can be heard planning an attack on a rebel outpost from a makeshift base in Tamanah, near Maarat Al Numan, well outside their usual areas of operation in government-controlled territory.
The fighters, speaking in Persian, are heard using the names of animals as code words to describe targets and claim that a planned attack will be easy.
“They can’t defend it, even with the whole battalion. We will go in secret and we will hit and then take it – it will be no big deal,” one fighter says.
A Fatemiyoun Division commander last week said Suleimani had laid out instructions for the militia group’s strategy for the next five years.
The 20,000 strong Fatemiyoun division, along with Hezbollah fighters, is providing the shock troops for the regime push on Maaret Al Numan.
The deserted city is a strategic prize lying on the M5 motorway linking the capital Damascus to Syria's second city Aleppo, a main artery coveted by the regime.
Damascus loyalists have since Friday seized around 14 towns and villages around the city, reaching its eastern outskirts, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.
They have also cut the M5 highway leading north from Maaret Al Numan to Idlib city, according to the Observatory and the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.
Retaking full control of the M5 highway is essential to the government's efforts to rekindle a moribund economy.
Idlib and nearby areas of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) extremist group, led by members of the country's former Al Qaeda franchise.
The regime of President Bashar Al Assad has repeatedly vowed to reassert control over the whole of Syria, despite several ceasefire agreements.
Maaret Al Numan was an early hub of support for what started as demonstrations against Assad's rule in 2011.
Since December 1, some 358,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes in Idlib, the vast majority of them women and children, according to the United Nations.
The UN says an additional 38,000 people fled violence in neighbouring western Aleppo between January 15 and 19.
A ceasefire announced by Moscow earlier this month was supposed to protect Idlib from further attacks, but it never took hold.
Aid agencies and relief groups have warned that further violence could fuel what may potentially become the largest wave of displacement seen during Syria's nine-year-old civil war.