Syrian troops and their allies, backed by Russian jets, attacked rebel-held towns north of the city of Homs on Thursday, targeting a long-held and strategic enclave of opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad.
The offensive, which began before dawn, expands on over a week of ground attacks launched with Russian air support in areas of western Syria that are crucial to Assad's survival and held by rebel groups. Syrian state television, quoting a military source, said the army had begun a military operation in the area after heavy airstrikes and artillery barrages early on Thursday.
It comes amid reports of increased Iranian military support for Syria. The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Iranian forces had been arriving on Thursday via the Bassel al-Assad International Airport, near Jableh in Latakia province.
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 in Terhan, 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 a day after a regional official said hundreds of Iranian troops are being 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 amid Russian airstrikes.
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 a regional official and activists were the first confirmation of Iranian fighters taking part in combat operations in Syria.
The Syrian government attacks on positions north of Homs saw Russian airstrikes hit targets around the town of Talbiseh, Rastan and the villages of Teir Malla, Dar Kabira and Khalidiya, a few miles north of the mainly government-held city, the Syrian Observatory said on Thursday.
It said government forces and fighters from Lebanon's Shia armed group Hezbollah were involved in the assault. Activists told Al Jazeera that at least 14 civilians were killed in the airstrikes that targeted an internally displaced shelter in Teir Malla.
Recapturing the area north of Homs would help reassert Assad's control over the main population centers of western Syria and secure territory linking Damascus to the coastal heartland of his minority Alawite sect.
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 in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other “terrorists” in Syria, but most of the strikes have focused on central and northern Syria, where ISIL group does not have a strong presence.
Al Jazeera and wire services