Assad allies deploy thousands of fighters to bolster Damascus defences
BEIRUT - Thousands of Iranian and Iraqi fighters have been deployed in Syria in past weeks to bolster the defences of Damascus and its surroundings, a Syrian security source said on Wednesday.
"Around 7,000 Iranian and Iraqi fighters have arrived in Syria over the past few weeks and their first priority is the defence of the capital. The larger contingent is Iraqi," the source said on condition of anonymity.
"The goal is to reach 10,000 men to support the Syrian army and pro-government militias, firstly in Damascus, and then to retake Jisr al-Shughur because it is key to the Mediterranean coast and the Hama region" in central Syria, he added.
Syria's government lost control of Jisr al-Shughur in northwestern Idlib province on April 25, as a coalition of opposition forces including Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front swept through the region.
Iran's official news agency IRNA quoted elite Revolutionary Guards General Qassem Soleimani as saying "in the coming days the world will be surprised by what we are preparing, in cooperation with Syrian military leaders."
The agency cautioned however that it "takes no responsibility for the information."
Iran is a key ally of the Syrian government, and it has provided Damascus with financial and military support throughout the conflict that began in March 2011 with anti-regime protests.
But in recent months, the Syrian government has lost territory in several parts of the country to both an alliance of rebel groups including Al-Nusra, and to the Islamic State jihadist group.
Faced with those setbacks, the government has appealed to Tehran and ally Russia to step up support, a Syrian political figure close to the regime said.
A diplomatic source in Damascus said Iran had been critical of the regime's failure to achieve the last major offensive operation it undertook -- a February bid to cut rebel supply lines to the northern city of Aleppo.
Tehran had opposed the operation, citing lack of preparation, the source said, and subsequently insisted that Syria change its strategy to focus on holding less territory more securely.
Analysts and observers have said the Syrian government now appears ready to accept the de facto partition of the country, focusing on the defence of strategically important areas and leaving others to rebels or jihadists.
According to one source close to the regime, it considers the coast, the central cities of Hama and Homs, and the capital Damascus as vital.
It also regards the Damascus-Beirut and Damascus-Homs highways as "red lines", the source said.
More than 220,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict.