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Iran boosts military support in Syria

Iran has stepped up support on the ground for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

FILE: Pro-regime fighters speak with a rebel fighter in the town of Babbila, a suburb of Damascus, during a cease fire agreement between the group controlling the town and the regime on 17 February, 2014. Picture: AFP.

LONDON/ANKARA - As Syria's war nears the start of its fourth year, Iran has stepped up support on the ground for President Bashar al-Assad, providing elite teams to gather intelligence and train troops, sources with knowledge of military movements say.

This further backing from Tehran, along with deliveries of munitions and equipment from Moscow, is helping to keep Assad in power at a time when neither his own forces nor opposition fighters have a decisive edge on the battlefield.

Assad's forces have failed to capitalise fully on advances they made last summer with the help of Iran, his major backer in the region, and the Hezbollah fighters that Tehran backs and which have provided important battlefield support for Assad.

But the Syrian leader has drawn comfort from the withdrawal of the threat of US bombing raids following a deal under which he has agreed to give up his chemical weapons.

Shi'ite Iran has already spent billions of dollars propping up Assad in what has turned into a sectarian proxy war with Sunni Arab states. And while the presence of Iranian military personnel in Syria is not new, military experts believe Tehran has in recent months sent in more specialists to enable Assad to outlast his enemies at home and abroad.

Analysts believe this renewed support means Assad felt no need to make concessions at currently deadlocked peace talks in Geneva.

MILITARY SPECIALISTS

Assad is now benefiting from the deployment by Tehran of hundreds more military specialists to Syria, according to Iranian sources familiar with deployments of military personnel, Syrian opposition sources, and security experts.

These include senior commanders from the elite Quds Force, the external and secretive arm of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as IRGC members.

Their function is not to fight, but to direct and train Syrian forces and to assist in the gathering of intelligence, according to sources in Iran and outside.

An Iranian foreign ministry official said: "We always have said that we support our Syrian brothers and respect their will ... Iran has never got involved in Syria by providing arms or financially or by sending troops."

A recently retired senior IRGC commander said Iranian forces on the ground included some Arabic speakers. He said top Quds force commanders numbered 60 to 70 at any given time.

These men were tasked with advising and training Assad's military and his commanders, he said. Revolutionary Guards directed the fighting on the instructions of the Quds Force commanders, he added.

The figures could not be independently verified from Syria, but the deaths of at least two IRGC commanders in Syria have been publicly reported.

European and US security officials said hundreds of Iranians were active in Syria advising, training and in some cases commanding Syrian government forces.

Scott Lucas, of EA WorldView, a specialist website on Iran and Syria, said the evidence indicated hundreds of Iranian advisers and trainers were inside Syria at any one time.

"They are trying to work with the Syrians in ramping up the number of (Syrian) troops they can put in the field and making sure those guys can hold the line as well as carry out certain offensive operations," he said.

ACROSS BORDERS

Iranian and Syrian opposition sources said personnel could enter Syria through the border with Turkey since Iranians did not need visas to enter Turkey. Others come in across the Iraqi border and more senior commanders fly in to Damascus.

A Turkish official said the number of Iranians crossing into Syria had increased in the last few months. Most had non-Iranian passports.

A Syrian opposition source said in recent months Iranian- led forces had begun operating in coastal areas including Tartous and Latakia. They have local ID cards, wear Syrian military fatigues and work with the elite Syrian air force intelligence unit.

WEAPONS LIFELINE

In recent weeks Syria has continued to receive arms and military equipment from Russia and via proxies, according to several sources. Those supplies included unmanned spy drones, guided bombs and spare parts for combat craft.

A rebel fighter operating in Homs province with Islamist group Liwa al-Haq said opposition forces knew of Iranian planes flying into Hama airport in central Syria to deliver weapons.

The Syrian opposition source said Latakia airport and port as well as the port in Tartous were used to bring in equipment.

Other supplies included machine guns and ammunition for artillery and tanks, the arms industry source said.