Iran is escalating its role in the war in Syria, sending hundreds of men from its elite forces to support Bashar al-Assad and dispatching its most celebrated Revolutionary Guards commander to an area where an anti-rebel offensive is expected shortly.

Arab diplomats and analysts said on Wednesday that Iran had already sent hundreds of troops to northern and central Syria, after reports that up to 2,000 are to be deployed alongside fighters from Tehran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah and foreign Shia militia units under the cover of Russian airstrikes.

Iran has backed the Assad regime from the start of the war four and half years ago, but its role so far has been relatively low-profile. Pictures of Gen Qassem Suleimani, commander of the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, addressing fighters in Syria, reinforce the perception that a new stage of deeper Iranian involvement may be beginning.

Diplomats say Iran urged Russia to intervene militarily in support of Assad after serious losses of territory and manpower this year. Suleimani visited Moscow in July, reportedly to make that point. But some experts also see a degree of competition between Moscow and Tehran for influence in Damascus.

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