Iran and Russia have been plotting for months on military intervention in Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, according to senior regional officials.
A top Iranian general, Major General Qassem Soleimani, met with Russian leaders in Moscow in July to discuss how Iran and Russia could together help provide Assad’s regime with military aid as the civil war wages in Syria.
Soleimani is the commander of the Quds Force, the elite extra-territorial special forces arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Senior regional sources say he has already been overseeing ground operations against insurgents in Syria and is now at the heart of planning for the new Russian- and Iranian-backed offensive.
During his visit to Moscow, Soleimani mapped out the Syrian rebel advances against Assad in the region, highlighting the need for an Iranian-Russian alliance rallying in support of Assad.
"Soleimani put the map of Syria on the table," a senior regional official said. "The Russians were very alarmed, and felt matters were in steep decline and that there were real dangers to the regime. The Iranians assured them there is still the possibility to reclaim the initiative. At that time, Soleimani played a role in assuring them that we haven’t lost all the cards."
Soleimani was allegedly directed by Khamenei to spearhead the Iranian side of the military intervention and travel to Moscow and Syria to establish the details.
Russia and Iran began plotting military action in Syria months before the July meeting, according to three senior regional officials.
Russian warplanes started conducting airstrikes in Syria last week, targeting areas that aren’t controlled by the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS) despite assurances from Moscow that the increased military activity is meant to combat the terrorist group. U.S. officials believe that Russia is specifically targeting CIA-backed Syrian rebels in a direct challenge to the Obama administration Syria policy.
Meanwhile, Iranian special forces are on the ground Syria. According to sources, hundreds of Iranian troops have traveled to Syria in recent weeks to conduct ground operations. One of the senior regional officials said that 3,000 Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters have also mobilized in the region, and Syrian troops are also ready for battle.