Russia and Iran escalated their military cooperation on the war in Syria. On August 16, Russian warplanes, taking off from Hamedan airbase in western Iran, bombed targets in Syria belonging to ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra). Since 2011, Moscow and Tehran have provided key military support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s campaign against extremist groups and rebels. The two nations have been coordinating closely on the battlefield for nearly a year.
Russia’s use of the air base marks the first time a major power has conducted military operations from Iranian soil since the 1979 revolution. On August 16, the Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and Su-34 tactical bombers carried out airstrikes on arms depots, command points and training camps in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Idlib provinces. The planes returned to their home airfields in Russia after the mission, according to Moscow. Russian bombers carried out strikes for the next two days as well.
Russia launches Syria airstrikes from Iranian base; first time a major power has done so since 1979. https://t.co/6Zbhxd09pe— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) August 16, 2016
Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, indirectly confirmed the Russian use of the air base in an interview with state media. “Cooperation between Tehran and Moscow to fight against terrorism in Syria is strategic and we exchange our capacities and possibilities in this regard,” he said on August 16. “The conditions have grown difficult for the terrorists due to the constructive and extensive cooperation among Iran, Russia, Syria and the resistance front and this trend will continue with new and massive operations until their full annihilation,” he added.
State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner said that Secretary John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov about the issue, but did not provide many details. “I believe it was raised by the Russian side, and I think Secretary Kerry stated our concerns,” he said during the August 16 press briefing. Toner suggested that Russian use of the Iranian airbase “could very well be a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which, as you noted, prohibits the supply, sale, or transfer of combat aircraft to Iran unless approved in advanced by the UN Security Council.”
Lavrov responded to Toner’s remarks in a later news conference. “In the case we're discussing there has been no supply, sale or transfer of fighter jets to Iran. The Russian Air Force uses these fighter jets with Iran's approval in order to take part in the counter-terrorism operation” in Syria, he said.
On August 17, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of Parliament’s Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, officially acknowledged that Russian planes were flying out of Shahid Nojeh Air Base. He, however, specified that the bombers were only permitted to refuel. “Generally, there is no stationing of Russian forces in the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Boroujerdi said. Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani also emphasized that Russia did not have a permanent military base in Iran. Iran’s constitution bans foreign militaries from maintaining bases on its soil. Other lawmakers, however, said Russian use of the base violated the constitution.
Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan dismissed domestic criticism about Russia’s use of the airbase in remarks carried by Fars News Agency on August 21. But he also reproached Moscow for the way in which it publicized the deployment. “Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of show-off and ungentlemanly [attitude] in this field," Dehghan said. He emphasized that there was no written agreement between the two countries and that the operational cooperation was temporary and limited to refueling.
On August 22, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson said that Russia’s use of the airbase had ended. “Russia has no base in Iran and is not stationed here. They did this (operation) and it is finished for now,” Bahram Qasemi said, according to Tasnim News Agency. Larijani, however, indicated that Russian jets were still using the air base in remarks during an August 23 session of parliament.
Iran’s relationship with Russia is complicated. “Despite their shared suspicions of the United States, Russia and Iran have long had a contentious relationship and do not cooperate well with each other,” according to Mark N. Katz. Russia has also attempted to improve its ties with Iran’s regional rivals: Turkey, the Sunni Arab states and Israel. But the Syrian conflict is one area that the two have cooperated on.
Syria is Russia’s closest partner in the Middle East. The two have had friendly relations since Hafez al Assad took power in 1970. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built a naval facility in Tartus, Syria, which is now Russia’s only facility in the Mediterranean. Syrian military officers were educated in the Soviet Union. Russia remained Syria’s main arms supplier after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Despite close Russia-Syria ties, Moscow was slow to intervene directly in the Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011. On Sept. 30, 2015, Russia launched its first airstrikes in support of Assad. Moscow claimed it targeted ISIS, but observers said the bombings targeted areas that were under ISIS control. In the following months, Russian planes hit U.S.-backed rebels. In late 2015, observers reported sightings of Russian troops and tanks. By early 2016, Assad seemed to have the upper hand – in large part due to support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. In March 2016, President Vladimir Putin announced that he was withdrawing the majority of Russian troops from Syria. Airstrikes, however, continued.
For decades, the Islamic Republic has been a pivotal ally of the Assad dynasty and a source of arms, military advisers, and billions in financial aid. Iran, however, did more than Russia to step up support after the uprising began in 2011. It helped create the National Defense Forces, a group of some 80,000 Alawites, Shiites and regime loyalists who bolster the Syrian army.
In 2013, Tehran reported the first Iranian deaths in Syria. Iran’s support for Assad became even more critical to the regime’s survival after the 2014 rise of ISIS. By 2015, Iran was losing senior Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) commanders deployed to aid Syrian government troops. In August 2016, expert Ali Alfoneh reported that Iran’s combat fatalities in Syria included 431 from the IRGC and seven from the regular military since January 2012. Iran has also organized Shiite militiamen from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries to aid Syrian government troops. Alfoneh counted more than 400 deaths of Shiite Afghans organized by Iran between September 2013 and August 2016.
Iran has cultural as well as strategic interests in Syria, which is home to some 50 Shiite shrines and holy places. They have been sites of Iranian pilgrimages for centuries. Iran has committed to defending Shiite holy places from Sunni extremists.
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Click here to read The Iran Primer chapter on Iran-Syria relations.