DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian troops and their allies launched an offensive in the central province of Homs on Thursday and Russia’s government said its warplanes carried out a rare airstrike near Damascus targeting an Islamic State group position southeast of the capital.
The offensive came as a senior Iranian official told reporters in Damascus that Tehran would consider sending troops to Syria only upon a request from the Syrian government.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of an influential parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, reiterated his country’s full support for the Syrian government, stressing that a political solution is the only way for Syria to emerge from the current crisis.
Boroujerdi’s comments came despite reports that hundreds of Iranian troops have already been deployed in northern and central Syria, dramatically escalating Tehran’s involvement in the civil war as they join allied Hezbollah fighters in an ambitious offensive to wrest key areas from rebels. A regional official who has knowledge of operational details in Syria told The Associated Press on Wednesday about 1,500 Iranian revolutionary guards have arrived in Syria in the past two weeks, taking advantage of Russian air cover. Other Syrian activists also reported the fresh arrival of Iranian troops.
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Asked whether Iran has forces on the ground, Boroujerdi said: “According to Iran’s anti-terrorism strategy, we submitted weapons and experts to those two countries (Iraq and Syria). Any other request will be considered and debated in Iran.”
Iranian and Syrian officials have long acknowledged Iran has advisers and military experts in Syria, but denied the presence of any ground troops. Wednesday’s statements by the regional official and activists were the first confirmation of Iranian fighters taking part in combat operations in Syria.
Syria’s state media quoted President Bashar Assad as saying during his meeting with Boroujerdi that “efforts exerted by friendly countries, on top of them Iran and Russia, to strengthen Syria’s steadfastness and helping it in the war on terrorism are highly appreciated by the Syrian people.”
In Moscow, the Defense Ministry said the Russian air force cut the number of its airstrikes over the past 24 hours compared with the day before, hitting 32 targets.
“This is due to the fact that the front line with the ISIS terrorist group is moving as a result of the active offenses of the Syrian armed forces,” the ministry said, using a term to refer to IS.
The ministry also said Russia has “increased the number of reconnaissance flights of aviation and drones” in order to verify reports provided by a joint information center based in Baghdad.
The military said Russian airstrikes on militant positions have hit a command center in Aleppo province, a land mine depot in Idlib, artillery positions in Hama and Soviet-made air defense systems in eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
It was not clear if the airstrikes on the suburbs of Damascus were the first to hit the area since Russia began its airstrikes two weeks ago.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said the strikes targeted an IS position in the village of Beir Qasab southeast of Damascus on the edge of the southern province of Sweida.
Also Thursday, a Syrian military official told AP that the army began an operation in Homs province aiming to “restore security to these areas.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The official said troops captured the town of Khaldiyeh near the central city of Hama.
State TV said troops killed several militants in the village of Teir Maalah near the city of Homs, Syria’s third largest.
Homs-based activist Bebars al-Talawy said the offensive began early Thursday and was preceded by intense air strikes and shelling. He added that the aim of the government is to open the highway between the cities of Homs and Hama.
“Shells were raining on civilian homes,” al-Talawy said via Skype. “The air raids even shook the city of Homs,” several miles away from the front lines, he said.
The Observatory said Russian warplanes conducted at least 15 airstrikes on the edge of the rebel-held town of Talbiseh and nearby areas, killing 10 people including six opposition fighters.
Russia began its air campaign Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen launched a ground offensive against rebels in central Syria a week later. Russia says its airstrikes are meant to weaken the Islamic State group and other “terrorists” in Syria, but Western officials and Syrian rebels say most of the strikes have focused on central and northern Syria, where the Islamic State group does not have a strong presence.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.