According to the statement of Russian Ministry of Defense, Russian warplanes took off on August 16 from a base in Iran to target Islamic State and the Nusra Front militants in Aleppo, as well as in Deir el-Zour and Idlib, destroying five major ammunition depots, training camps and three command posts.
While Russia has long supported the Syrian government with airstrikes conducted from Syrian air bases, the Tu-22M3 long range strategic bombers require longer runways and previously flew from bases in southern Russia.
Using an Iranian airfield cut the bombers’ travel distance from 1,250 miles to around 400 miles, theoretically increasing the maximum payload and sortie rate. On 16 August, Tu-22M3 accompanied by Sukhoi-34 jets took off from Hamadan with a full bomb load.
The core benefit for the Russian Air Force is a drastic reduction in flying time to terrorist targets in Syria – the Iranian deployment would allow the Russian aircraft to cut flight times by 60 percent.
Russian media reported on August 16 that Russia had also requested and received permission to use Iran and Iraq as a route to fire cruise missiles from its Caspian Sea fleet into Syria, as it has done in the past.
Besides Tu-22 M3 bombers, Russia has a range of options to strike terrorists in Syria, including Kalibr MK long range missiles launched from surface ships, submarines located in the Caspian and the Mediterranean seas and strategic bombers Tu-95MS and Tu-160 armed with long range stealthy Kh-101 cruise missiles.
To boost its combat capabilities Russia has taken a decision to convert Hmeimim air base into a permanent fully-operational military facility with a regularly deployed task force. The plan includes expanding aircraft apron, improving the air strip, building barracks and a hospital, assigning extra space for large transport aircraft, installation of new radio equipment including air traffic control systems, creating new sites for deployment of Pantsir surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapon systems, among other things. Russia will also deploy its aircraft-carrying missile cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov with Ka-52 attack helicopters on board to the Syrian shore.
The Russian bombers taking off from an Iranian air base have increased the number of options to become a new development in Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year.
It is virtually unheard of in Iran’s recent history to allow a foreign power to use one of its bases to stage attacks from. Russia has also never used the territory of another country in the Middle East for its operations inside Syria since the operation was launched on September 30, 2015.
The announcement suggests cooperation on the highest levels between Moscow and Tehran. It comes against the backdrop of Russia’s growing influence in the region.
The relations between Tehran and Moscow have grown warmer since Iran reached agreement last year with global powers to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of UN, EU and US financial sanctions. President Vladimir Putin visited Iran last November – his first visit after 2007. The two countries regularly discuss military planning for Syria, where Iran has provided ground forces that work with local allies while Russia provides air power.
Moscow and Tehran have recently signed a military agreement allowing Russian aircraft to station at Hamadan Airport in western Iran.
Tehran has agreed to share its military facilities and capacities with Moscow, confirming dedication to strategic cooperation in fighting against terrorism in Syria, Iran’s Secretary of Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani told Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) in an exclusive interview on August 16.
The parties have also agreed to hold joint military exercises. The agreement was reached with Commander of the Iranian forces Brigadier General Vali Madani who headed the delegation participating in the International Army Games 2016 in Moscow.
In April Russia started to deliver S-300 air-defense missile systems to Iran as part of an arms deal that was revived after the Islamic republic reached a framework nuclear agreement with world powers last year. Russia will deliver several divisions of its S-300 air defense missile system to Iran by the end of this year.
It’s not Iran only. At the end of September 2015, a joint information centre in Baghdad was set up by Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria to coordinate their operations against Islamic State. It’s important to note that being a part of the US-led coalition, Iraq coordinates intelligence efforts with Russia and Iran and opens its air space for Russia bombers and cruise missiles.
In January Jordan set up a joint war roomwith Russia to carry out coordinated anti-Islamic State military operations in Syria.
Turkey has taken measures to tighten its border control coordinating activities with Russia. According to Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik, Turkey will do everything needed for cooperation with Russia on Syria.
The official said «a new page has opened» in the history of defense cooperation with Russia. Turkey «will develop close relations with Russia in the defense area based on its interests and this will not be a step against NATO or any other country», he noted. Indeed, Russia and Turkey are taking unprecedented steps to directly coordinate actions in Syria. A newly formed joint committee met for the first time on August 11 in Russia. The newly formed body consists of intelligence, military and diplomatic representatives from Russia and Turkey. A fully operational base in Hmeimim, which is located virtually on the Turkish border, signifies a major geopolitical decision that factors in the Russian-Turkish rapprochement. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced on August 10 that Ankara «will again, in an active manner, take part in operations with its planes».
«Let’s fight against the terrorist group together, so that we can clear it out as soon as possible», Cavusoglu urged. «We will discuss all the details with Russia. We have always called on Russia to carry out anti-Islamic State operations together», he added. The official emphasized the importance of real time intelligence sharing. The foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran have recently pledged greater cooperation on resolving Syria’s crisis, vowing to keep the dialogue open despite their differences.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran was «ready to work and cooperate» with Turkey and Russia on the issue of Syria, adding that it welcomed «the new cooperation that has started» between Moscow and Ankara.
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All in all, Russia’s military capabilities in the region and political clout have grown immensely. Actually, Russia has become a leader of a broad coalition of states to include Iran, Iraq and Syria coordinating activities with Turkey and Jordan. If the US and Saudi Arabia joined the effort, the terrorists would be routed effectively and without much delay.
At least for now, it is Russia, not America, that is the decisive force in the Syrian war. Evidently, Moscow has taken control of the battlefield and negotiating table to become the gatekeeper to a negotiated solution to the conflict. As CIA Director John Brennan said on June 27 in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, «There’s going to be no way forward on the political front without active Russian cooperation and genuine Russian interest in moving forward».