Why are Russian operations in Syria being conducted out of Iran?
DUBAI - Russia has deployed supersonic Tu-22M3 long-range strategic bombers and Su-35 strike aircraft at the Hamadan Airbase in Iran and has been conducting air strikes on targets in Syria from Iran since August 16th.
Using OFAB-500 high-explosive bombs, Russian aircraft flying from Iran conducted operations in Aleppo, Idlib and Deir ez-Zor, destroying command centres, weapons warehouses and training camps. The Islamic State (ISIS) was targeted along with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front.
The Russian deployment to Iran came as a surprise to many. Moscow had based its deployed air force units out of Hmeimim airbase in Syria and flown in other aircraft from Russia for specific missions. At times, however, the restriction of being able to operate only from Hmeimim meant Russian aircraft were not always able to respond to threats in a timely manner.
Hmeimim does not have the capacity to support the level of activity Russia would like to be able to undertake in Syria. In contrast to Hamadan, for example, Hmeimim does not have the infrastructure to support larger, heavier aircraft such as the Tu-22M3s, which had been flying from bases in southern Russia.
Deploying to Hamadan airbase in Iran provides greater operational flexibility to Russian forces conducting air operations in Syria by allowing the introduction of different aircraft, significantly cut flight times and enable larger payloads to be carried. There are estimates that operating from Iran would allow some Russian aircraft to carry three times as much payload compared to what would otherwise be possible from Syria.
Operating from Iran enhances Russian response capabilities against some time-sensitive targets in Syria by allowing quicker response times and greater firepower.
Russian aircraft flying out of Iran will need to fly through Iraqi airspace to reach Syria. Baghdad has granted permission and it is plausible that Iraq will offer logistics support at some point.
Considered strictly at the military operations level, Russia’s deployment of forces to Iran is a tactical move. It also undoubtedly carries strategic repercussions.
The Russian deployment to Iran comes when fighting in Aleppo has intensified, the outcome of which is seen by all sides to be crucial as to where the Syrian war moves and the prospects for any peace process to end it.
Russia has been criticised by the United States and its coalition partners of intentionally targeting moderate rebels instead of ISIS since its intervention began. Moscow’s agenda in Syria has essentially been to stabilise and support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which many say would have collapsed if the Russians had not intervened.
Russia is now repositioning its force deployment related to operations in Syria and appears to be stepping up activity.
Days before deploying forces to Iran, Russia dispatched the Zelenyy Dol and Serpukhov corvettes, equipped with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, to Syria. Russia has also dispatched a battle group, which includes frigates and corvettes capable of hitting targets in Syria, to the Caspian Sea. It had already sought clearance from Iran and Iraq to fire cruise missiles through their airspaces against targets in Syria.
Russian-Iranian military cooperation is obviously deepening, a development that will raise concerns for the United States and its regional partners because of its potential effect on the prospects for a peace process.
Moscow, of course, potentially had other options in the region to Hamadan airbase — in Jordan, Iraq or even Turkey now that relations with Ankara are back on track. Thus, insofar as political statements are concerned, Russia’s deployment to Iran is an important move.
Observers will pay close attention to how much further Russian-Iranian military cooperation deepens, especially as the political situation in Syria is unlikely to reach a conclusion for many years, even if an unlikely peace process can get under way soon.