Russia has deployed bomber aircraft to Iran for air strikes on rebels in Syria, the Russian defense ministry confirmed on Tuesday.
As the main backers of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al Assad, Russia and Iran have long been de facto allies in the Syrian conflict. But the two countries had been reluctant to forge direct military ties between them… until now.
The Tu-22M3 Backfire and Su-34 Fullback bombers launched their first air raids from Hamedan air base in western Iran on Tuesday and struck ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra militants in Aleppo, Deir Ez Zor and Idlib, according to the defense ministry.
“The strikes have eliminated five large ammunition depots with armament, munitions and fuel, training camps of militants near Serakab, Al Ghab, Aleppo and Deir Ez Zor cities, three control centers of militants near the cities Jafra and Deir Ez Zor as well as a significant number of militants,” the Russian military stated in a release.
Russian Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets deployed to Hmeymim air base in western Syria escorted the bombers over militant territory. “All Russian aircraft have returned to the [Hamedan] airfield after accomplishing the combat task,” according to the defense ministry.
The bomber deployment marks the first time since World War II that Russian troops have operated from Iran. After that war, Iran became a close U.S. ally and one of the biggest buyers of American weaponry. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 toppled the pro-American regime and, for the next 37 years, Tehran barred foreign forces from openly using bases in its territory.
The Syrian war changed all that. And the gradual lifting of international military sanctions—a consequence of Iran agreeing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program—could accelerate Iran’s realignment as an ally of Russia. Moscow recently asked Tehran to allow it to route cruise missiles over Iranian territory for strikes in Syria. And Iran has been negotiating to acquire new fighter jets from Russia to begin rebuilding its dilapidated air force.
It’s unclear when Moscow and Tehran agreed on the Hamedan deployment, but the actual build-up of forces happened quickly and took some observers by surprise. Yemen’s Al Masdar News was one of the first news publications to report on the bombers’ arrival, publishing exclusive photos of bombers at Hamedan on Aug. 15.
Earlier, analysts had used internet-based flight-tracking websites to follow Russian military aircraft streaming into Hamedan.
Deploying bombers to Iran significantly boosts the destructive force Russia can bring to bear on Syrian insurgents. Russian long-range bombers including Tu-22M3s first struck militants in Syria in November. But the Backfire, Bear and Blackjack bombers staged from Russian air bases and flew over Iran and Iraq—with Tehran and Baghdad’s permission—in order to reach Syria. For some of the bombers, it was a staggering 8,000-mile round trip.
Flying from Hamedan cuts the distance—and, by extension, the mission duration—by more than half. That could allow the aircrews to reduce their fuel loads and, instead, carry more weaponry. Russia’s bombers in Iran can fly more missions while carrying more bombs than the same kinds of aircraft operating from Russian soil.
That’s good news for Assad’s regime, and bad news for innocent civilians in Syria. For while Russian bombers have indeed struck ISIS and other militant groups, they’ve also frequently attacked residential blocks and hospitals as part of an apparent strategy of punishing anyone living in rebel-controlled territory.
In June, Russia warplanes bombed an outpost near Syria’s border with Jordan that had been used by U.S. and British special forces.