Aleppo strikes showed limits of Russian air power
MOSCOW - Russia’s politically sensitive and ultimately fruitless decision to launch bombing missions on Syria from Iranian soil has exposed the limits to its air power, leaving Moscow in need of a new strategy to advance its aims.
People familiar with Russia’s military said it opted for the sorties from Iran — and Tehran agreed to allow them — because the attacks were not achieving their aim of crushing rebels in the city of Aleppo.
The gamble failed and rebels fighting Russian ally Syrian President Bashar Assad remain ensconced in parts of Aleppo.
Russia began air strikes on Syria in support of Assad on September 30th, 2015, from bases in government-held territory in Syria and from warships. In August this year, facing logistical problems in mounting an expensive campaign at a time of tight state finances, Russia intensified the bombing of Aleppo in what turned out to be a brief series of raids from Iran.
The strikes on the Aleppo rebels seem to have achieved little beyond stirring a political row in Iran, whose constitution forbids the establishment of any kind of foreign military base.
That Russia went to such lengths to achieve its aims in Aleppo and still failed could strengthen the hand of those in Moscow who say the operation in Syria has reached a watershed and that it is time to seek a negotiated solution.
“I get the feeling we’re like a horse at the circus, running around in a circle since September 30th when we first deployed our aircraft there,” said a person close to the Russian Ministry of Defence who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Our forces are insufficient, our coordination with the Iranians is not at the required level. We need to change something. What, I don’t know.”
Russia’s Defence Ministry announced on August 16th that it had for the first time used an airbase in Iran from which to launch air attacks on Syria. Long-range Russian Tupolev 22M3 bombers, escorted by Sukhoi fighters, took off on sorties from a base near the Iranian city of Hamadan.
Letting Russia base aircraft there was politically sensitive for Iran: The last time a foreign power had used an Iranian airbase was during the second world war.
Some Iranian lawmakers called it a breach of the constitution and Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan said that, by publicly revealing the arrangement, Moscow had committed a “betrayal of trust”.
Within a week Iran’s Foreign Ministry had announced that Russia’s use of the bases had ended. In Moscow, the Defence Ministry said aircraft operating from the bases had completed their tasks.
Andrei Klimov, a pro-Kremlin member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said the cost of the Syrian operation may have been a factor.
“We are trying to conduct the operation in Syria within certain sums,” he said. “The Defence Ministry has other expenditures. Therefore, to optimise costs, more economical routes are sought. Any sensible country does the same thing.”
Russia’s desire to use the base was “linked to the increase in intensity of military activity in the Aleppo area”, said Vasily Kashin, an analyst with the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, which advises Russia’s defence sector.
“It seemed that, in the opinion of the Syrian, Russian and Iranian commands, a watershed moment is coming.”
The Iranian base was a crucial logistical cog in this escalation in Aleppo because without it Russia’s Tupolev jets have to fly the greater distance to Syria from Russia and back.
That means carrying more fuel, which reduces bomb payloads and — because of the longer flight time — cuts into the number of sorties they can fly.
Airbases inside government-controlled parts of Syria were not suitable for the Tupolev aircraft and adapting them would be expensive, Kashin said.
During the intensified bombing, the rebel forces in Aleppo counter-attacked, breaking the siege and restoring access to supply routes.
Defence experts said Russia does have the military capacity to intensify its bombing in Syria further, whether or not it has access to the Iranian base. However, that would mean more expense for Russia, which is struggling to fill gaps in its budget, faces a parliamentary election next month and has seen the Syrian operation drag on far past the Kremlin’s original timetable.
In May, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that “the main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, saying that their work had “on the whole, been fulfilled”, but still the bombing went on.
The difficulty of making progress militarily will make a negotiated solution more attractive to the Kremlin.
Russia agreed on August 26th to a 48-hour humanitarian ceasefire in Aleppo to allow aid deliveries to get through, UN officials said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry met in Geneva on August 27th to talk about a possible truce in Syria.
Huge differences though remain between Moscow and its allies, on one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other, not least over the future of Assad. Previous openings for peace talks have dissolved into renewed fighting.