Russia is defending its use of an Iranian air base to launch airstrikes against targets in Syria.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Russian fighter jets are using the Hamedan air base with Iran’s approval. He said the aircraft are supporting what he called “counter-terrorism” operations in Syria.
Russia’s defense ministry said it started using the base this week to attack Islamic State (IS) positions in northern and eastern Syria. The defense ministry said the attacks also targeted Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the militant group formerly known as the al-Nusra Front.
The United States is leading an international coalition against IS forces in Iraq and Syria. The coalition cleared the way for the Russian airplanes to pass over Iraq on their way from Iran to Syria.
Coalition spokesman Chris Garver confirmed the flights.
“They informed us they were coming through, and we insured safety of flight as those bombers passed through the area and toward their target.”
Russia has been carrying out airstrikes in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for nearly a year. But until this week, all the flights started in Syria or Russia.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called Russia’s use of the Iranian air base “unfortunate, but not surprising or unexpected.” He noted that while Russia has said it is bombing IS and other militants, the attacks “predominantly target moderate Syrian opposition forces.”
Toner also said Russia’s operation could violate a U.N. resolution banning the supply, sale and transfer of combat aircraft to Iran.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov denied this.
“In this case. we’re discussing. There has been no supply, sale or transfer of fighter jets to Iran,” he told reporters.
Russia and Iran are both longtime supporters of Syrian President Assad. Rebel groups have been fighting forces supporting Assad during the country’s 5-year-old civil war.
State Department spokesman Toner said the United States is committed to pursuing “a credible, nationwide cessation of hostilities,” as well as a political process to help achieve peace in Syria.
Using the base in Iran puts Russian fighter jets much closer to their targets. Flying from the Hamedan air base, instead of a Russian base in the north Caucasus, cuts the distance from about 2,000 kilometers to about 700 kilometers.
Viktor Ozerov is a Russian senator. He said the shorter flying distance will increase the accuracy of Russian airstrikes in Syria. He said it will also reduce the risk of being hit by ground-to-air missiles that may be launched by rebel groups in Syria.
In Iran, the head of the country's National Security Council was reported as saying that Iran and Russia cooperate on fighting terrorism in Syria. He said the two countries are sharing facilities in support of that goal.
The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, noted that Iran has not given Russia approval to operate a permanent base in its territory. But some military experts say Russia’s decision to use the Iranian air base could mean that the move will make it permanent.
Christopher Harmer is with the Institute for the Study of War. “This looks like Russia is acknowledging the limitations of operating from Syrian bases and is digging in for a long-term campaign based out of Iran,” he said.
Russia power shift?
Jonathan Adelman, from the University of Denver, said Russia’s latest move represents a clear change for the Russian government.
“First, it’s showing that the real power in the Middle East today is Russia. Secondly, that they are aligned, at the same moment, with both sides. They are supporting Syria. They are, of course, working together with the Iranians...”
Omar Lamrani is with the U.S.-based global intelligence community Stratfor. He said he also believes Russia’s movement of military equipment and personnel into Iran signals a change in Iran’s position in the Middle East.
“That says a lot to the Saudis,” Lamrain said. “That says a lot to the Gulf Cooperation Council. They’re going to be asking such questions as, ‘If we do come into conflict with Iran, does that also mean we are coming into conflict with Russia?’”
I’m Bryan Lynn.
Words in This Story
unfortunate – adj. unlucky
predominantly – adv. mainly, mostly
credible – adj. able to be trusted of believed
cessation –n. the end of something happening, especially violence
accuracy – n. how exact or correct something is