Hundreds of Iranian troops have moved into Syria to join a major ground offensive in support of President Bashar Assad’s government, as the White House expressed fears Thursday that Russia’s military intervention will worsen sectarian violence there and prolong the civil war.
Two Lebanese sources told Reuters that hundreds of Iranian troops with equipment and weapons had reached Syria in the past 10 days to mount a major ground campaign. They would also be backed by Mr. Assad’s Lebanese Hezbollah allies and by Shiite militia fighters from Iraq, while Russia would provide air support.
“They will be followed by more,” one of the sources said of the Iranian troops.
Russian warplanes, in a second day of strikes, 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.
Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group, which is part of the Free Syrian Army, said his group’s base in Idlib province was struck by around 20 missiles in two separate raids. 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 Mr. Assad.
“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” Mr. Haj Ali said.
At the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the airstrikes in Syria are targeting only the Islamic State, al-Nusra “or other terrorist groups recognized by the United Nations Security Council or Russian law.”
Asked by reporters to define “other terrorist groups,” Mr. Lavrov replied: “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”
The White House said U.S. intelligence officials are monitoring closely the reports of Iranian involvement but hadn’t confirmed them. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said if the reports are accurate, it would be “the most important piece of evidence” that Russia’s actions are inflaming the sectarian conflict.
“That is not good news for the Russians,” Mr. Earnest said. “That is consistent with a worsening sectarian conflict that only puts off a political solution.”
As the crisis deepened, U.S. and Russian military officials held the first in a series of talks Thursday via video link to seek ways to keep their militaries apart as they wage parallel campaigns of airstrikes in Syria. U.S. officials reminded the Russians that “the focus of military activities in Syria should be on defeating ISIL,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
So far, direct Iranian military support for Mr. Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisers. Iran has also mobilized Shiite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.
Washington and Moscow 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 Mr. Assad, believing he must leave power in any peace settlement.
The administration says a central part of its strategy is building “moderate” insurgents to fight against both Mr. Assad and Islamic State, although so far it has struggled to find many fighters to accept its training.
The Russian and Iranian intervention in support of Mr. Assad comes at a time when momentum in the conflict had swung against his government and seem aimed at reversing insurgent gains.
“The Russian strikes are a game changer. Damascus is off the hook,” a diplomat tracking Syria said.
The White House said Mr. Obama has no plans to respond militarily to Russia’s actions either in Syria or in Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists have been waging a yearlong fight while the administration has resisted calls from Congress to send arms to the government in Kiev.
“This has not caused … a broad-scale or a broad reevaluation of our strategy inside of Syria,” Mr. Earnest said, adding that “the situation in Ukraine unfortunately hasn’t changed.”
Lawmakers in both parties have condemned Russia’s intervention in Syria, while some in the GOP express concern that Mr. Obama is allowing Mr. Putin to increase his power in the Middle East.
Sen. Deb Fischer, Nebraska Republican and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the Russian action portends “darker days to come in Syria.”
“Moreover, Putin’s rebuff of the White House’s entreaties for cooperation provides further evidence that our Syria policy is in tatters and our credibility on the world stage has dwindled to record lows,” she said. “It’s greatly concerning that the administration is continuously caught off guard and publicly expresses confusion over obvious consequences and foreseeable occurrences. I call on the president to outline in detail his strategy moving forward.”
Rep. Roger Williams, Texas Republican, said the administration “has somehow once again allowed President Putin to expand Russian influence. … From Ukraine, to Iran, to Libya and Syria, President Obama’s complacent foreign policy in Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa has shifted the balance of power and undermined America’s credibility on the world stage,” he said.
Russian jets struck targets near the cities of Hama and Homs in western Syria. Despite Moscow’s claim that it had hit Islamic State positions, the areas it struck are mostly held by a rival insurgent alliance, which, unlike Islamic State, is supported by U.S. allies including Arab states and Turkey.
Mr. Earnest said Russian forces are carrying out “indiscriminate” attacks in areas where the Islamic State militants are not operating.
“The effect of these kinds of indiscriminate airstrikes essentially drives what would otherwise be moderate elements of the Sunni opposition to Mr. Assad into the arms of extremists,” Mr. Earnest said. “This is going to have consequences for the efforts of everybody, including Russia, to counter extremism in the region and around the world.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said airstrikes in the central province of Hama on Thursday hit locations of the U.S.-backed rebel group Tajamu Alezzah, as well as the province of Idlib, which is controlled by a coalition of rebel groups that includes al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.
The British group said Tajamu Alezzah was also targeted on Wednesday.
Russia’s air campaign in support of Syrian government forces began Wednesday in what Mr. Putin called a preemptive strike against militants. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was going after Islamic State militants as well as a “list” of other groups.
“These organizations are well known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,” he said Thursday, without specifying.
Hundreds of Muslim Chechens and Central Asian fighters have joined the battles in Syria since the early days of the civil war, and many form the backbone of al-Nusra and Islamic State. Some of those Chechen extremists are part of the coalition that controls Idlib.
Mr. Putin has said Russia would be fighting “gangs of international terrorists.” The Syrian government considers all rebel groups terrorists.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.