August 17, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: A Strong Statement by Russia
For the second day in a row on August 17, Russian bombers launched airstrikes in Syria from an airbase in Iran—a sign of increased Russian-Iranian cooperation with repercussions that could extend far past the end of the Syrian civil war. On August 16, both Russian and Iranian officials first reported that Russian aircraft had used Hamadan airbase as a staging ground for strikes in Deir al-Zour, Idlib, and Aleppo provinces. The announcement marked the first time Iran has publicly allowed a foreign military to conduct operations from within its borders since the Iranian revolution, and is a clear indication of the changing geopolitical and military environment in parts of the Middle East.
The impact of the Russian use of Hamadan airbase on the war in Syria depends on how frequent and sustained such use will be. Hamadan airbase’s runway is longer than that of Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in western Syria, giving Russian Tupolev-22 bombers the ability to take off in much closer proximity to Syria than bases in Russia. The ability to launch from Iran, therefore, cuts the amount of fuel and time necessary to complete missions. The back-to-back raids show the agreement between Russia and Iran is more than a one-time symbolic move, and is intended to not only increase Russian strike capability in Syria, but also signal a changing geopolitical landscape.
The Tupolev-22 is a long-range strategic bomber; a photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry shows a Tupolev-22 releasing its payload of unguided bombs from altitude over Syria. The photo, whether inadvertently or not, provides clear indication that limiting civilian casualties in densely populated urban areas—especially in Aleppo—is not high on Russia’s priority list. Syrian monitoring groups said 27 civilians died in the August 16 airstrikes. Russia is stepping up its bombings in part to blunt and reverse recent rebel gains in the highly strategic area of Aleppo.
The agreement between Moscow and Tehran that enabled Russia’s use of Hamadan airbase has been in the works for months, and is part of a larger strategic partnership between the two nations. As the two primary foreign backers of the Assad regime—with both directly involved in the fighting—it was somewhat inevitable that Russian-Iranian cooperation would increase. Yet the symbolism of the high-profile use of Hamadan is significant. For Iran—a country with deep memories of foreign militaries intervening in its affairs—the gains of publicly confirming the agreement were clearly viewed to outweigh the risk of domestic backlash.
The agreement marks the formalization of what had previously been somewhat more ad hoc military cooperation between the two countries; Russia and Iran have long had ties in terms of military sales, to include the advanced S-300 air defense system. Undoubtedly, Moscow and Tehran gave serious forethought and consideration prior to publicly announcing the escalation in military cooperation. The Russian use of Hamadan is a statement by both Iran and Russia of their unwavering commitment to the Assad regime, and a warning that even in one of the most devastating civil wars in recent history, things can always escalate further. It is also a statement that whenever the war ends, the geopolitical balance in the region will be dramatically different than when the conflict began. Russia has always supported Syria and had relatively good relations with Iran. Russia's long-term strategy in its intervention in Syria, however, has demonstrated the leading role Russia intends to play in the region for the foreseeable future.
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