ALEPPO, Syria — Syria’s President Bashar Assad is on the verge of recapturing all of Aleppo from rebels, but the victory won’t be his alone. The battle for Syria’s largest city has attracted thousands of foreign forces backing Assad – including Russian soldiers and Shiite fighters from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The remarkable political and sectarian alignment underscores Aleppo’s symbolic and strategic importance, which goes beyond the confines of Syria’s civil war. Syria’s former commercial center has long been regarded as a major gateway between Turkey and Syria.

Assad has sent some of his most elite forces to take part in the offensive on eastern Aleppo neighborhoods, held by the rebels since 2012. They include the Republican Guards, the 4th Division and the special forces. Syria’s powerful paramilitary Desert Hawks and naval commandos have also joined the fight.

But after more than five years of war, even the best Syrian forces have been severely depleted. The pro-government side has cast the fight as a sectarian one in order to rally support, particularly in the Aleppo battle.

“We, the Shiites, are fighting to defend our ideology, religion, holy places and the state against terrorists,” said a Shiite cleric in Beirut. He would only give his first name, Mohsen, because he did not want to appear as if he is inciting violence.

There are no exact numbers for the foreign fighters backing the Syrian government in Aleppo, but they are estimated to be in the thousands. And while thousands of Sunni volunteers from around the world have come to fight against Assad in Syria, the Shiite militiamen and foreign fighters – as well as the Russians – have been critical for his battlefield successes.

Shiite volunteers have been going to Syria with the blessing of Shiite power Iran – Assad’s key ally since the early days of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Tehran, which also backs armed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, has been sending military advisers to Assad’s forces for years, including several senior officers who were killed in the conflict.

Pressure mounted on Assad last year when rebels captured the northwestern province of Idlib, which borders the coastal province of Latakia, a government stronghold and the heartland of Syria’s Alawites, a Shiite offshoot to which the Assad family also belongs.


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