Iran troops join Syria war, Russian jets pound group trained by CIA

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 BEIRUT/MOSCOW: Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive against West backed rebels while Russian warplanes that joined the fight this week bombed a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA, the group’s commander said, putting Moscow and Washington on opposing sides in a Middle East conflict for the first time since the Cold War. 

The US and Russian militaries will hold talks at 11am EDT (1500 GMT) via video link to seek ways to keep their militaries apart as they wage parallel campaigns of air strikes in Syria, a US defence official said. 

Russian jets struck targets near the cities of Hama and Homs in western Syria on the fifth day of their surprise air campaign. 

Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the areas it struck are mostly held by a rival insurgent alliance, which unlike Islamic State is supported by US allies including Arab states and Turkey. 

Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group, told Reuters one of the targets was his group’s base in Idlib province, struck by around 20 missiles in two separate sorties. His fighters had been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 

“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” Haj Ali said. He said the Russian jets had been identified by members of his group who once served as Syrian air force pilots. 

Two Lebanese sources told Reuters hundreds of Iranian troops had reached Syria in the past 10 days with weapons to mount a major ground offensive. They would also be backed by Lebanese Hezbollah and fighters from Iraq, while the Russians would provide air support.

“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” one of the sources said. 

Same enemies, different friends

Russia’s sudden decision to join the war as well as the increased military involvement of Iran, could mark a pivotal turning point in a conflict that has drawn in most of the world’s military powers. 

With the United States leading an alliance against Syrian government, the Cold War superpower foes, Washington and Moscow, are now engaged in combat over the same country for the first time since World War II. 

They say they have the same enemies — the Islamic State group of Sunni Muslim militants who have proclaimed a caliphate across eastern Syria and northern Iraq. 

But they also have very different friends, and sharply opposing views of how to resolve the 4-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes. 

Washington and its allies oppose both Islamic State and Assad, believing he must leave power in any peace settlement. 

Washington says a central part of its strategy is building “moderate” insurgents to fight against both Assad and Islamic State, although so far it has struggled to find many fighters to accept its training. 

Moscow supports the Syrian president and believes his government should be the centrepiece of international efforts to fight extremist groups. 

It appears to be using the common campaign against Islamic State as a pretext to strike against groups supported by Washington and its allies, as a way of defending a Damascus government with which Moscow has been allied since the Cold War. 

The Russian strikes represent a bold move by President Vladimir Putin to assert influence beyond his own neighbourhood: it is the first time Moscow has ordered its forces into combat outside the frontiers of the former Soviet Union since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign in the 1980s. Agencies

 

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