According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters launched an offensive south of Aleppo province in Syria on Friday. The groups expanded a counter-attack against rebels across western Syria with support from Russian air strikes.
This assault means the army is now pressing insurgents on several fronts near Syria’s main cities in the west, control of which would secure President Bashar Assad’s hold on power even if the east of the country is still held by Islamic State.
The city of Aleppo is only 30 miles from the Turkish border. Aleppo, a commercial and industrial hub near the border with Turkey, was Syria’s largest city before its four-year civil war, which grew out of protests against Assad’s rule.
Control of the city, still home to some two million people, is divided between the government and rebels.
“This is the promised battle,” a senior military source in Syria said of the offensive. The group is backed by “hundreds of Hezbollah and Iranian forces which he said had made some gains on the ground,” according to Haaretz.
Other sources such as Al-Arabia News state that “thousands” of Iranian troops are in the area.
This was the first time Iranian fighters had taken part on such a scale in the Syrian conflict, said the military source, according to Haaretz.
Hezbollah has supported Assad in several battles during the civil war, and said the army was carrying out a “broad military operation”, with support from Russian and Syrian jets, across a front at least 10 miles (15 km) wide from the southwest to southeast of Aleppo. It made no mention of Hezbollah fighters in its statement.
Hezbollah is a Shia Islamist militant group and political party based in Lebanon, writes Wikipedia.
Two senior regional sources said this week that Iran sent thousands of troops to Syria to bolster an offensive already underway in Hama province and ahead of the Aleppo attack, according to Haaretz.
Iran says it has sent weapons and military advisers to support its ally Assad, but has denied providing troops.
In the last week Iranian media have reported the deaths in Syria of three senior officers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. Hossein Hamedani, a corps deputy commander, was killed near Aleppo and two other officers have also died fighting Islamic State forces in Syria, Iran’s Tasnim news agency said.
Two senior Hezbollah officers have also been killed in Syria in the last week, a Lebanese security source said.
Rami Abdulrahman, director of UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there were heavy clashes near the Jebel Azzan region, about 12 km (8 miles) south of Aleppo city.
The area that the army and Russian jets were targeting was close to a main road heading south towards the capital Damascus, Abdulrahman said.
The army had recaptured the village of Abtin from rebel fighters, he said, as well as a tank battalion base close to Sabiqiya village. Both villages lie close to Jebel Azzan. Rebels had hit one army tank with a U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missile.
The U.S. is attempting to support “moderate” rebels. Unfortunately, sources claim that many “moderate” rebels collaborate with ISIS and al Nusra and have exchanged weapons.
The military source said the rebel fighters were mainly from the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and al Qaeda’s Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, as well as the Suqour al-Sham and Failaq al-Sham insurgent groups.