Senior U.S. defense and military officials tell NBC News that a large number of Iranian ground forces and Hezbollah fighters are positioning themselves for what they predict will be a “major assault on Aleppo,” Syria’s largest city.
The officials say the operation is being coordinated with the Russians who would launch airstrikes in support of the Syrian military, Iranian and Hezbollah forces against rebel and militant fighters who control large sections of Aleppo. The officials could not say when the assault operation to “retake Aleppo” would begin but the planning and movement of ground forces toward Aleppo is “well underway”
The officials could not confirm reports from Syria that “thousands” of Iranian forces are preparing to mount the assault but described the number as “substantial.”
For the past three years Aleppo has been a “melting pot” of various armed forces. The city, which once had a population of 2.5-million people, is now split up into several sections occupied by the Syrian military, a number of moderate enemy rebel forces including the Free Syrian Army, militant groups such as the al-Qaeda backed al-Nursra front and most recently ISIS.
According to one senior U.S. official the offensive is aimed at “retaking what was once an Alawite stronghold for the Assad regime.”
Aleppo has seen some of the most intense fighting and wartime atrocities such as barrel bombs launched by Syrian military aircraft. Retaking Aleppo is considered critical to the Assad regime and thought to be all but impossible without the recent arrival of Russian air power.