Russia is adding to its barrage on rebel forces in Syria, sending in more firepower in the form of an additional Russian battalion armed with advanced tanks and artillery while punching ahead on the ground in central and western parts of the country with an Iranian-trained force that could number 10,000 or more.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of the ground campaign Wednesday, saying the Syrian army began an offensive “with our fire support,” including the launch of cruise missiles from Russian warships in the Caspian Sea.
The Russian moves were quickly criticized by U.S. officials, one intelligence official telling VOA that the use of cruise missiles, in particular, was just “part of Putin’s propaganda campaign.”
“It sends a message to domestic audiences that Russia is a player,” the official said. “It sends a message to the coalition that it is willing to use a broad range of capabilities to prop up the regime.”
The White House also warned Wednesday Moscow’s Syria strategy was likely to be counterproductive though others took a more somber view.
“They are postured to assert their influence," a U.S. official told VOA on condition of anonymity when asked about Russia’s expanded operations.
U.S. defense officials had estimated that until recently Russia had only about 500 naval infantrymen on the ground, most at the Bassan al-Assad airbase near Latakia which has housing for up to 2,000. But U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute warned another 1,000 troops had already arrived.
“Recent Russian reinforcements over the last week or so feature a battalion-size ground force,” Lute told to reporters in Brussels Wednesday. “There is artillery, there are long-range rocket capabilities, there are air defense capabilities."
Lute added the deployment also included some of Russia’s most advanced tanks.
There are also growing concerns about the make-up and capability of the forces on the ground, which according to officials is a mix of soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Shia militia fighters from Iraq, Lebanon and even Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While Russia provides the air support, surveillance and high-level coordination, Iranian forces are directing many of the battles themselves, often with the foreign forces leading the way.
“I would say it’s likely in the tens of thousands of fighters who are actually on the ground,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher with the University of Maryland and the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
“Some of these guys, this is maybe their third tour in Syria. Some of them it’s their fourth tour. Other times it’s their first [tour] but they are experienced militiamen who fought hard in Iraq,” he said.
The presence of Iranian-trained fighters comes as no surprise to U.S. military officials who acknowledge “some movement” of fighters into Syria has been going on for years.
Smyth, who tracks the activities of the Iranian-backed Shia militias on social media, said the recent increase of such forces in Syria appears to be part of a plan dating back to at least early July.
“Around July 3 is when the first recruitment pictures, which included phone numbers to call into a central recruitment bank, were posted online,” he said.
Smyth said online recruiting seemed to peak in August, shortly after Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, visited Moscow. By mid-August, many of the recruits had finished training in Iran or Lebanon and were on their way to Syria.
“So these forces were there, essentially, to be those boots on the ground before the Russians were getting there,” Smyth said. “And then this process has just continued through September utilizing different recruitment networks,” Smyth said.
“I don’t think Iran has the capability to change the air balance, or the weapons balance or make that much of a difference on the ground,” said Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It would take a lot more volunteers and a lot more ground forces capability than Iran has deployed to date to really be a significant new force in halting the rebels.”
For now, though, the ground campaign has made an impact, prompting civilians to flee from the villages of Kernaz and Kafranbooda, near Hama, north to Idlib province, according to rebel commanders and local residents.
One rebel commander speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity before the ground offensive got underway, expressed concerns both about the long convoys of tanks and armored vehicles headed to Hama and Homs as well as the propaganda aimed at spreading fear.
But the commander said help has also arrived from friendly countries, though he refused to get into specifics.
Rebel forces also claimed several successes in some of the early clashes in Hama’s northern and eastern suburbs, claiming to have killed a Russian officer and some Russian soldiers while also several tanks, though none of the claims could be immediately confirmed.
Jamie Dettmer, Katherine Gypson and Diaa Bekheet contributed to this story.