In a significant development for the conflict in Syria and for the Middle East generally, Russia has deployed a number of bombers to an air base in western Iran. The bombers – Tu-22M3s and Su-34s – will conduct airstrikes from the Hamedan air base against militant groups in Syria, in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Moscow confirmed the deployment of the bombers in a Ministry of Defense statement, noting, “On August 16, 2016, Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and Su-34 tactical bombers took off from the ‘Hamedan’ air base (the Islamic Republic of Iran) and carried out a concentrated airstrike on objects of the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groupings in the provinces of Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib.”[i]
According to the Ministry of Defense, the August 16 strikes were followed by more the next day,[ii] conducted by Su-34s over Deir ez-Zor. Russian fighter jets flying from Hmeymim, in Syria’s Latakia Province, covered the bombers as they performed strikes on militant groups.
The deployment to the air base at Hamedan marks a new stage in Russia’s Syria campaign and further demonstrates that Moscow is prepared to increase its commitment to President Assad, despite saying in March 2016 that it was withdrawing the “main part” of its forces from Hmeymim.[iii]
Russian Tu-22M3s have previously conducted a number of bombing runs over Syria, flying from Russia. Basing them out of Hamedan puts the long-range bombers far closer to Syria.
Iran has previously allowed Russian bombers and cruise missiles to use its airspace as they fly toward Syria. Notably, Iran’s decision to allow the bombers to fly out of Hamedan for combat sorties is the first time the country has allowed foreign militaries to be based out of Iranian territory since World War II.[iv] Iranian officials contend that Russia is only using the base to refuel its bombers.[v]
The United States criticized the deployment, hinting that it could, in Washington’s view, violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which pertains to the Iran deal negotiated last summer. Moscow rejected that accusation, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noting that no aircraft or supplies had been transferred to Iran.[vi]
Both Washington and Moscow have recently been working to deepen their cooperation on fighting extremists in Syria,[vii] but military developments in Aleppo Province, in particular, have seemingly strained those efforts. Several weeks ago, the Syrian Army was able to briefly impose a siege on opposition-held districts of Aleppo city before opposition militias led by the al-Qaeda group Jabhat al-Nusra (recently renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham[viii]) were able to break the siege.
It is unclear how many aircraft in total have been sent to Hamedan or how long Moscow intends to operate from the air base. Photographs allegedly from the air base show three Tu-22M3s and an Il-76.[ix] A senior Iranian parliamentary official pushed back on rumors that Russia would deploy the S-400 air defense system to Hamedan.[x]
Nevertheless, the bomber deployment will bolster Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East and solidify the strategic cooperation between Moscow and Tehran. Intervening in the Syrian conflict at President Assad’s request in September of last year opened the door for Russia to play a bigger role in the Middle East’s regional politics; the deployment to Hamedan, even if temporary, indicates that Russia is becoming a key factor in shaping the direction of regional politics.
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