Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the country’s expeditionary al-Quds Force, visited the Syrian side of the Golan in recent days.
Soleimani, a powerful figure thought to be at the forefront of Iranian fighting abroad, is in Syria to oversee a new offensive by Iranian and Assad regime troops meant to help the government retake large swaths of the country’s north.
His visit to the Golan, near the border with Israel, was apparently intended to boost morale of Syrian and Hezbollah forces – the latter loyal to Iran’s regime — after a series of setbacks against the “southern front” of rebel groups in the area.
By Wednesday, Soleimani was in the Latakia province, on the Mediterranean coast north of Lebanon, from which the northern operation is expected to launch, backed by the recent influx of Russian air power.
A regional official and Syrian activists said Wedneday that hundreds of Iranian troops were being deployed in northern and central Syria, dramatically escalating Tehran’s involvement in the civil war as they join allied Hezbollah fighters in an ambitious offensive to wrest key areas from rebels amid Russian airstrikes.
The official, who has deep knowledge of operational details in Syria, said the Iranian Revolutionary Guards — currently numbering around 1,500 — began arriving about two weeks ago, after the Russian airstrikes began, and have accelerated recently. The Iranian-backed group Hezbollah has also sent a fresh wave of fighters to Syria, he told The Associated Press.
Iranian and Syrian officials have long acknowledged Iran has advisers and military experts in Syria, but denied there were any ground troops. Wednesday’s statements were the first confirmation of Iranian fighters taking part in combat operations in Syria.
The main goal is to secure the strategic Hama-Aleppo highway and seize the key rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, which Assad’s forces lost in April to insurgents that included al-Qaida’s Nusra Front.
The loss of Jisr al-Shughour, followed by the fall of the entire province, was a resounding defeat for Assad, opening the way for rebels to threaten his Alawite heartland in the coastal province of Latakia. The official suggested the Syrian army’s alarmingly tenacious position around that time is what persuaded the Russians to join the fray and begin airstrikes two weeks ago.
The Syrian government and Iran had been asking Russia to intervene for a year, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss military affairs. He said the Russian “tsunami wave” has given allies such as Iran the cover to operate more freely in Syria.
His account of Iranian troops arriving ties in with reports from Syrian opposition activists, who reported a troop buildup in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported Wednesday that Iranian troops were arriving and being transported to a military base in the coastal town of Latakia, in the town of Jableh outside the provincial capital.
At least two senior Iranian commanders were killed in Syria in recent days, including Gen. Hossein Hamedani, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, who died Oct. 8 near Aleppo.
“Syria will witness big victories in coming days,” said Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, speaking Monday at Hamedani’s funeral.
The Quds Force is the de facto overseas operational arm of the of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is separate from Iran’s national military force.
Israeli officials have accused the IRGC of trying to build an anti-Israel front on the Syrian Golan, alongside Hezbollah forces and local Druze opposed to Israel.
On January 18, a reported Israeli air strike on the Syrian Golan targeting a Hezbollah cell there killed six Hezbollah fighters and an IRGC brigadier general, Mohammed Ali Allahdadi. Allahdadi was said to be involved in helping to build up the operational capabilities of Hezbollah’s burgeoning Golan presence.
Soleimani himself traveled to Lebanon the following day to meeting with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and visit the graves of the Hezbollah fighters killed in the strike.
Reports from late January claimed that a cross-border Hezbollah reprisal attack the following week, in which two IDF soldiers were killed and seven injured, was planned by two Quds Force officers appointed by Soleimani.