Iran has deployed hundreds of elite fighters in Syria, unprecedentedly deepening its involvement on behalf of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, Israeli security officials said Thursday.
The officials, who briefed Israeli reporters, said several hundred fighters from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have taken up positions around the western Syrian village of Zabadani, north of Damascus, in the last few days. The high ground in that area, close to the Lebanon border, overlooks the Damascus-Beirut highway, and potentially controls large parts of Lebanon. Were Islamic State forces and other opponents of Assad to hold control there, they would also potentially be able to target Alawite forces loyal to Assad concentrated along the Syrian coast, Channel 2 reported.
The move is seen by Israel as a dramatic escalation of Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war, the sources said. Iran has previously sent military advisers to help Assad, and the Iran-armed Lebanese Hezbollah militia has been fighting alongside Assad and sustaining significant losses.
Israel does not intend to intervene at this stage, Channel 2 said, but would do so if it saw a direct threat, and if weaponry were transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in south Lebanon.
Several Western media reports have said Iran sent troops to Syria on other occasions in the past three years. In May 2014, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps appeared to admit the presence of Iranian soldiers in Syria.
Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, a commander of the Revolutionary Guards, was killed in a reported Israeli airstrike on Syria in January.
The Iranians’ deployment followed a series of secret visits to Moscow by senior IRGC officials, according to the sources.
“It is not an exaggeration to assess that this is being done in coordination with the Russians,” says Channel 2’s Roni Daniel. He noted that Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC al-Quds force, visited Moscow last month, and said this was apparently where the deployment of Iranian fighters was decided upon.
Israel’s defense minister said Thursday that Russian forces have also arrived in Syria in recent days to aid Assad’s beleaguered regime.
Moshe Ya’alon told reporters that Moscow sent military advisers and an active force to set up an air base near the Syrian city of Latakia. The base could be used to deploy fighter jets and helicopters in strikes against Islamic State militants, he said.
Ya’alon’s disclosure was the latest indication of a Russian military buildup in Syria that has concerned the United States and NATO.
Moscow has backed Assad throughout Syria’s 4.5-year civil war, in which more than 250,000 people have been killed. The US sees Assad as the cause of the crisis and has warned Moscow against beefing up its presence.
The arrival of the Iranian and Russian forces is seen as a coordinated effort to bolster Assad and thwart Islamic State with action on the ground. US-led airstrikes are patently incapable of defeating IS, the Channel 2 report said.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that the world powers’ new nuclear deal with Iran will embolden the regime to promote its interests more vigorously in the region.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.