The Syrian army’s ongoing military operation in the northwestern province of Idlib has resulted in a number of strategic gains for President Bashar al-Assad’s government. On Jan. 28, the Syrian army recaptured Maaret al-Numan, a strategic town south of the city of Idlib, from rebel and terrorist groups. The achievement was seen as an important step to regain full control over the M5 highway that connects Damascus with Aleppo. As has been the case with the previous rounds of the Syrian army’s operations in Idlib, the recent advances were made possible by Russian air support for the Syrian forces. However, what has been new this time is the active presence of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces on the battlefield that has been reported.
The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph published a report Jan. 26 containing leaked radio communications from Iran-backed Afghan fighters known as the Fatemiyoun Division showing their involvement in the ongoing battles in Idlib. The newspaper said the estimated number of Fatemiyoun forces in Idlib is between 400 and 800. Earlier in January, there were media reports, citing Turkish intelligence, that several Iran-backed groups in Syria had been deployed to the Idlib and Aleppo fronts. On Jan. 27, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized “the combined forces of Russia, the Iranian regime, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime” for conducting a massive assault on Idlib and western Aleppo.
Despite its persistent military and political support for the Assad government, the Islamic Republic had refrained from getting involved in the previous rounds of the Syrian army’s operations in the country’s northwest. As such, Tehran’s decision to assist the Assad government in its current military campaign in Idlib could be considered an important development.