2016-08-20 By Richard Weitz
In another of the bold moves that has marked Putin’s Syria campaign since it began last September, the Russian Air Force began using bases in Iran on August 16 to support its bombing campaign in Syria.
For several days now, Tupolev-22M3 Backfire long-range supersonic bombers and the shorter-range Sukhoi-34 tactical bombers have conducted strikes from Iranian air bases.
The immediate reason for the cooperation may be tactical—to strengthen the strikes and reverse recent rebel successes in Aleppo, but strategic drivers are at work—Russia and Iran remain alienated from the West and share common goals regarding Syria; yet, some Russians may also have seen a need to reassure Tehran about Moscow’s commitment despite talk of Russian-U.S. military collaboration regarding Syria.
Russia and Iran have already been cooperating militarily in Syria, with Moscow providing air power and Tehran ground advisers for both Syrian government forces and for Hezbollah’s paramilitary units, which have provided auxiliary manpower to reinforce Syria’s depleted army.
Yet, until now the Tu-22s have mostly launched from the Mozdok Air Base in North Ossetia in the north Caucasus as well as short-range ground attacks from Su-34 strike planes using Russia’s newly built Hmeimim airbase, located outside the Syrian coastal city of Latakia as well as missiles launched from ships in the Caspian Sea and submarines in the Mediterranean.
Russian commanders want to use Iranian territory to support air strikes in Syria for the same reason the U.S. Air Force seeks access to Turkey’s facilities.
Using Iranian bases means Russian bombers can fly shorter distances, carry larger payloads, fly more sorties, expend less fuel to reach Syria, spend more time searching for targets, attack from new directions that may make them less vulnerable to ground defenses, and perhaps provide more rapid long-range heavy bomber support in an emergency (in the way U.S. commanders in Vietnam would call for B-52 air support whenever they needed overwhelming sky-based firepower).
Moreover, the modest-sized Hmeymim airbase from which the 30SM and Su-35S support planes have escorted the TU-22s cannot host such large aircraft themselves.
Some Russians said the move would also cut Russia’s war costs, though this seems unlikely unless the Russians stay in Iran long enough to compensate for the expenses of moving the bombers’ support infrastructure to Iran, and do not have to pay much rent.
Moscow has probably sent transportation planes, munitions, specialized equipment, and many ground personnel to Iran.
Iranian officials explained that the cooperation was “of a strategic character” to “unite our potential and capabilities” against terrorism.
Iran has never allowed a foreign military to deploy on its territory, and officials in Tehran have since strenuously denied that Moscow has established a permanent base in their country.
Still, the Russian decision may help assuage some Iranian complaints about Moscow’s insufficient operational coordination with Tehran in Syria.
In January, Russia and Iran signed a defense cooperation agreement, and some sources claim that the Russian bombers’ use of Iranian bases was discussed even before then.
But evidence suggests that the decision to conduct the deployment was more recent.
The Russian planes arrived in Iran on August 15, only a day before they began bombing.
Though the State Department spokesperson said that Moscow’s move was not unexpected, the Russian military did not warn the United States in advance about the redeployment.
Russian operators only provided short-term tactical warning to coalition air forces that the Russian planes were entering Iraqi airspace to secure their safe passage.
One reason for the escalation may have been that the Syrian government offensive against Aleppo had recently bogged down.
The Iranians had their own setback on May 7, when insurgents killed more than a dozen Iranian officers at Khan Tuman near Aleppo, the single largest known Iranian loss in the Syrian War. Syrian officials attributed some setbacks to inadequate military coordination between the pro-regime forces in Syria. The Iranian government then established a new position of senior coordinator for political, military and security affairs with Syria and Russia.
Iran also sent reinforcements into Syria. On June 10, the three countries’ defense ministers conferred in Tehran on the Syrian War.
Moscow may also be seeking to dispel Iranian suspicions over the Russian-U.S. negotiations regarding possible military cooperation in Syria.
Washington wants Moscow to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, or at least limit Russian-Syrian attacks against the Western-backed fighters in Syria, which Iran opposes. Persian Gulf and U.S. representatives were also pressing Russia to limit Iran’s influence in Syria.
By deepening their military partnership, Moscow also decreases Iranian interest, and ability, to reconcile with the West.
Russia’s move may have also aimed to force U.S. concessions in their discussions over bilateral military cooperation in Syria. Russian officials have complained that U.S. negotiators in the military talks were regularly changing their terms and failing to fulfill agreements.
Despite insisting that it is not committed to Assad’s rule, the Russian government has shown little interest in deposing him to reach a deal with the United States.
By highlighting its expanded cooperation with Iran, Moscow has increased its leverage and options.
Finally, Russia may be trying to expand its arms sales to Iran.
In April 2016, Iran received the first elements of the five S-300PMU-1/SA-20 Gargoyle surface-to-air missile (40 launchers) defense systems. Tehran immediately highlighted them at its annual National Army Day parade later that month. Russia had suspended implementation of this $800-million contract, signed in 2007, to deliver five S-300 in mid-2010, but reinstated the contract after last year’s nuclear deal, which took effect in January with the repeal of all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.
After Russia finishes delivering the five systems by the end of this year, Russian officials expect Tehran to withdraw its lawsuit against Russia for failing to implement the deal.
Though the JCPOA prohibits Russia and other countries from selling Iran ballistic missiles for eight years, Russia and Iran are discussing a sale worth $8 billion of Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters, Su-30SM multi-role fighter, Yak-30 training aircraft, K-300 Bastion coastal defense systems, diesel submarines and surface warships such as frigates, and other goods with more orders in the future.
Like the S-300 sale, Russia has a reason to sell anti-access area-denial systems to Iran as part of an effort to try to limit U.S. military options in the Gulf.
United Nation Security Council Resolution 2231 does allow the United States or other permanent members of the Council to veto the sale until 2021, but Russia and Iran could circumvent this impediment by delaying the execution of the deal by five years.