Behind Russia-Iran cooperation over Syria

Scott Peterson

RUSSIAN strategic bombers launched from Iran struck rebel positions in Syria on Wednesday, in a second day of attacks that multiply Russian firepower in the Middle East and underscore unprecedented military cooperation between the Islamic Republic and a foreign power. The Kremlin says the Tu-22M3 bombers attacked targets of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other factions in Syria that oppose President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of both Moscow and Tehran.
Russia’s decision to use the Shahid Nojeh military airbase in western Iran underscores its calculation that bolstering its nearly year-long overt military intervention – which began dramatically with Russia airstrikes launched from a base in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia – can help tip the battlefield in Assad’s favour. Perhaps just as significantly, the high-profile move allows both nations to ease their isolation, imposed by the US and the West, while spreading their regional influence through the use of hard power. “It means that keeping Assad in power is very important for Iran, and for Iranian hardliners too, since they are allowing an infidel military on their sacred territory,” says Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence columnist for Novaya Gazeta in Moscow. “The Iranian and Russian strategic intent in Syria seems much closer than the Russian and American strategic intent in Syria,” says Mr. Felgenhauer, referring to an earlier agreement by US and Russia to seek a negotiated solution. “I was a bit surprised that the Russian defence ministry so promptly acknowledged that we are in Iran…. The Russian military tends to be secretive, so that was a political decision to demonstrate to world that Russia and Iran are militarily together.”
Since last November, Russia’s strategic bombers have had to fly from an old Soviet airbase at Mozdok in southern Russia. The 650-mile distance to Aleppo from Mozdok is not much shorter from the western Iranian base near Hamedan, as the crow flies. But Russian planes must skirt Turkey, and targets in eastern Syria – and also anywhere in Iraq, should Russia eventually choose to take on IS targets there – are significantly closer from Iran. Flying out of Iran, therefore, enables Russian jets to carry full payloads of 24 metric tons – more than the maximum for the longer run from Russia, notes Mr. Felgenhauer. “That is of course significant, because since they are carpet bombing Syria, the more bombs you take, the more land you cover,” he says. “Right now at this pivotal point in the battle for Aleppo, it is very important that Russia has drastically increased bomb-carrying capability, to bring the bombs to the Syrian opposition.”
A top Iranian official said the new arrangement was Syria-specific but also “strategic,” and a “warning to terrorist-supporting countries” – an oblique reference to the US and its allies, which want to see Mr. Assad removed from power. While Iran- and Russia-led cooperation had already made life “very tough for terrorists,” the new expansion “will continue until they are completely wiped out,” said Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The Russian military presence is sensitive in Iran, where revolutionary ideology since 1979 opposed both US and Soviet influence during the cold war, and categorically, in rhetoric at least, rejects foreign meddling. Ali Larijani, Iran’s speaker of parliament, reminded lawmakers on Wednesday that it was “forbidden” by the Constitution to create a foreign military base, and that Iran had not “given the base over to Russia in military terms.” Indeed, the Iran-Russia cooperation is temporary, defined by mutual recognition of the threat of IS, and “is not a coalition against a third-party state [such as] the US, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey,” says Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran.
But while both sides have downplayed any greater regional ambitions, others see a larger strategy at play. “There could be more, and the possibility of spreading the Russian air campaign to Iraq,” says Felgenhauer. “The thing is not about Syria per se. Syria is important, but there is more: Russia wants to spread its influence over the entire region, have bases all over, push the Americans out and become the dominant power in the region.”
— Courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor

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