Iran has despatched 15,000 fighters to Syria to help government troops reverse recent battlefield defeats to a rebel-Jihadist coalition, a source was quoted as telling Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper on Thursday.
The force, made up of Iranians, Iraqis and Afghanis arrived in the Damascus area and in the coastal province of Latakia, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's heartland, according to the Lebanese political source.
The commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, Qasem Soleimani, was in Latakia this week to shore up preparations for the campaign and promised a “surprise” from Tehran and Damascus, the source said.
The militia is expected to spearhead an effort to seize areas of Latakia's neighbouring province of Idlib, where pro-Assad forces have come under increasing pressure in recent months from a seven-member coalition of rebels and have suffered a string of defeats.
The rebel coalition includes the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia and the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Assad agreed reluctantly to the Iranian plan, which the source said is expected to achieve successes by the end of the month and to boost flagging morale among pro-government forces in the wake of battlefield defeats and high casualties.
End-June is the deadline for Iran and world powers to finalize an interim deal on Tehran’s nuclear programme and Syrian army successes would improve Tehran’s leverage in the region, the source said.
The government of Assad, an Alawite Shia Muslim, is heavily dependent on assistance from Iran.
The US led coalition against IS has been heavily criticised for failing to halt the Islamic State jihadist group's capture of the ancient city of Palmyra in Homs province in May, and more recently their campaign against rebel groups in northern Aleppo province.