by Chris Kozak and Sinan Adnan
Iran reportedly deployed hundreds of soldiers to Syria starting on September 21 in order to participate in a major ground offensive in northwestern Syria backed by Russian airstrikes. Anonymous U.S. defense sources confirmed that several hundred Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters led by IRGC-Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Suleimani arrived in Syria to conduct an operation alongside forces from the Syrian regime and Lebanese Hezbollah. Lebanese sources quoted by Reuters asserted that the Iranian troops were not advisors but combat troops and suggested that the coming offensive may be focused in the countryside of Idlib and Hama Provinces. The alleged operating areas for the operation suggests that this effort will be directed towards bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by seizing areas of northwestern Hama Province and southwestern Idlib Province – including the al-Ghab Plain and the city of Jisr al-Shughour - that have been captured by rebel forces led by Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) over recent months. These positions would remove the direct threat that recent rebel advances posed to the regime heartland of Latakia Province and provide a buffer zone against future attacks. If confirmed, this development marks a major step change in the Syrian Civil War and highlights the deepening rapprochement between Iran and Russia after their announcement of a “united front” in Syria.
Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a proxy forces may constitute part of the Iranian ground force in question. A prominent Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militia Katai’b al-Imam Ali posted videos of its fighters in a garrison environment in Syria on September 21 and 28, naming one of its leaders as the commander of the group’s operations in Syria. Katai’b al-Imam Ali also claimed it deployed forces to Syria on August 5, 2015. The group is affiliated with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an advisor to MG Suleimani who was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a leader of a terrorist organization in July 2009. In Iraq, Katai’b al-Imam Ali is mostly active in northern Salah ad-Din province where it has been fighting ISIS at least since August 2014. Together with MG Suleimani and the IRGC, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali’s involvement in ground operations in Syria demonstrates that designated terrorist organizations and entities are likely conducting the ground offensives in Syria supporting Russia's airstrikes.