Russia’s Iran-based blitz potential game changer

Sunday 21/08/2016
Russian President Putin (R) welcomes Iranian leader Rohani

BEIRUT - Iran’s agreement to allow Rus­sian strategic bombers unprec­edented use of one of its major air bases to conduct the carpet-bombing of rebel targets in Syr­ia signals the emergence of a new military alliance in the Middle East that could have significant regional and global consequences.
In the first Russian operation — August 16th — six long-range Tu- 22M3 bombers took off from Iran’s Nojeh air base outside Hamadan, south-west of Tehran, to blast ji­hadist strongholds in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib.
There were more raids on August 17th in support of the forces of Syr­ian President Bashar Assad, who is now totally reliant on the military power of his key allies, Russian and Iran.
It is not clear how frequent the air strikes from Hamadan will become but Russia can be expected to step them up, probably for an extended period, since using the Iranian base allows the Tu-22s to carry much larger bomb loads than they have from airfields in southern Russia since Moscow’s September 2015 in­tervention in Syria.
So far, the indications are that Russia is not establishing a perma­nent base at Hamadan but using Nojeh, with its 4.8km runways, as a forward staging and refuelling base for strikes against Assad’s foes in Syria. But even so, the Iran-based Russian blitz could dramatically turn the tide of Syria’s savage war.
Leading Iranian lawmaker Al­aeddin Boroujerdi, a key figure in defence policymaking, said the Hamadan move was ordered by the Supreme National Security Council headed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This sharp escalation in the use of Russian air power appears to be a direct consequence of an offensive by an unexpected alliance of Syrian rebel groups that broke the regime’s siege of the opposition-held sector of the strategic city of Aleppo on August 6th. This is not something Tehran or Moscow wants to see re­peated.
There are also wider strategic im­plications for the escalation in Rus­sian-Iranian military collaboration.
The Hamadan deal is seen by some as a prod to the Americans to cooperate with Russia — thus ac­knowledging Moscow’s status as a major power — by coordinating air strikes against jihadists in Syria or face increasing Russian interven­tion. Washington has been dragging its feet on that project.
There is a wider significance for the turbulent Middle East. Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani emphasised that Tehran’s defence links with Russia are “strategic”.
Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s Su­preme National Security Council, has tied Iran’s growing military co­ordination with Russia to the Islam­ic Republic’s swelling confrontation with its old rival Saudi Arabia.
He condemned Saudi support for Syrian rebels and its intervention in Yemen. “It is not acceptable for the Muslim world to see Saudi Arabia investing towards the empower­ment of terrorist and takfiri groups [Tehran-speak for Sunni jihadists] instead of fighting the occupation of the Zionist regime,” he declared.