Iran troops to join Syria war, Russia bombs group trained by CIA

Air strikes were launched, targeting areas held by an insurgent alliance including a group linked to al Qaeda.

FILE: People inspect the rubble of collapsed buildings following a reported airstrike by government forces on May 24, 2015, in the rebel-held al-Sukari neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo in Syria. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT/MOSCOW - Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad's government, Lebanese sources said on Thursday, a further step in the rapid internationalization of a civil war in which every major country in the region has a stake.

Russian war planes that joined the fight this week bombed a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA, the group's commander said, putting Moscow and Washington on opposing sides in a Middle East conflict for the first time since the Cold War.

The US and Russian militaries will hold talks at 11am EDT via video link to seek ways to keep their militaries apart as they wage parallel campaigns of air strikes in Syria, a US defence official said.

Russian jets struck targets near the cities of Hama and Homs in western Syria on the second day of their surprise air campaign.

Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the areas it struck are mostly held by a rival insurgent alliance, which unlike Islamic State is supported by US allies including Arab states and Turkey.

Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group, told Reuters one of the targets was his group's base in Idlib province, struck by around 20 missiles in two separate sorties.

His fighters had been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, part of a program Washington says is aimed at supporting groups that oppose both Islamic State and Assad.

"Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar," Haj Ali said. He said the Russian jets had been identified by members of his group who once served as Syrian air force pilots.

Two Lebanese sources told Reuters hundreds of Iranian troops had reached Syria in the past 10 days with weapons to mount a major ground offensive.

They would also be backed by Assad's Lebanese Hezbollah allies and by Shi'ite militia fighters from Iraq, while the Russians would provide air support.

"The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers ... we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more," one of the sources said.

SAME ENEMIES, DIFFERENT FRIENDS

Russia's sudden decision to join the war with air strikes on behalf of Assad, as well as the increased military involvement of Iran, could mark a pivotal turning point in a conflict that has drawn in most of the world's military powers.

With the United States leading an alliance waging its own air war against Islamic State fighters, the Cold War superpower foes, Washington and Moscow, are now engaged in combat over the same country for the first time since World War Two.

They say they have the same enemies - the Islamic State group of Sunni Muslim militants who have proclaimed a caliphate across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

But they also have very different friends, and sharply opposing views of how to resolve the 4-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes.

Washington and its allies oppose both Islamic State and Assad, believing he must leave power in any peace settlement.

Washington says a central part of its strategy is building "moderate" insurgents to fight against both Assad and Islamic State, although so far it has struggled to find many fighters to accept its training.

Moscow supports the Syrian president and believes his government should be the centrepiece of international efforts to fight extremist groups.