Does this Change Everything? Russia’s first strikes on Syria from Iran Airbases

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russian bombers for the first time have taken off from bases in Iran to carry out air strikes on rebel targets in Syria.

The US military is complaining that under a Russian agreement with the US, it was supposed to get a timely notification of Russia air strikes so they could avoid any conflicts. The Russians appear to have given the Americans last-minute notice– enough so that the US could make the necessary arrangements, but only barely so. Likely Russia did not want to give the US time to complain about the basing in Iran or to try to pressure Moscow back out of this plan.

According to Russian sources, this procedure is a matter of saving money on logistics. But the move will inevitably be seen in the light of grand strategy. A tightening of Russian-Iranian security cooperation will be seen by Saudi Arabia and Israel as a threat, and since those two countries have the most powerful lobbies in Washington, it will view the development as threatening, as well.

BBC Monitoring says that “Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, chair of the State Duma’s Defence Committee and a former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, told RNS (Rambler News Service, 0952 gmt 16 Aug 16):”

“It is expensive and takes a long time to fly from bases in the European part of Russia. The issue of the cost of military combat activities is, at present, a priority. We must not go over the current Defence Ministry budget. Flying Tu-22s from Iran means using less fuel and carrying larger payloads . . . Russia won’t be able to find a friendlier and more suitable, from the point of view of security, country in that part of the world, and strikes must be carried out if we want to end this war . . . Airfields in Syria are not suitable because of the constant [need for] flying over areas of combat activities.”

TeleSur reports that the “long-range Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter bombers” took off from Iran’s Hamadan air base. These are the first strikes by Russia on Syrian targets from the territory of another country.

It is also unprecedented since 1979 for the Islamic Republic of Iran to allow a foreign power to use its facilities for military purposes. The United States had bases in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s and US soldiers were guaranteed immunity from prosecution in Iranian courts. After 1979 when Iran and the US cut off relations, the slogan of Iran was “Neither East nor West, an Islamic Republic.” This slogan referred to the Cold War exigency of allying with the US or the USSR, and Khomeini’s refusal to play that game.

From an Iranian point of view, closer military relations with the Russian Federation at this juncture have advantages. They are some protection from the belligerence toward Tehran of Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right, expansionist Israeli government, and of the new and reckless Saudi government, which is bombing Yemen, supporting Salafi extremists in Syria, and rattling sabers at Iran.

Asked about the Russian basing, Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, said that it was a matter of strategic cooperation against terrorism– given the importance of defeating ISIL.

Shamkhani appears to have been a little embarrassed about the de facto return of Iran to being a military asset of a great power. He went on to underline that in all its struggles in the region against terrorism, in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Tehran was depending primarily on local people power.

What Russia and Iran aren’t talking about is that apparently they have given up on the February cease-fire in favor of an aggressive campaign to conquer rebel-held East Aleppo as a way of ending the Syrian civil war. The Russian air strikes from Iran are in service to that goal.

Since it is likely that there will be a Clinton administration in January, this Russian-Iran cooperation on Syria will pose a problem for a president Hillary Clinton. She is on record as wanting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to impose a no-fly zone over that country, and to support the remnants of the Free Syrian Army– exactly the opposite of the policies of Moscow and Tehran. You could imagine a clash.

The development may also hurt Donald Trump, since he says he wants an alliance with Russia against Daesh (ISIL, ISIS). Since Russia has such an alliance with Iran, wouldn’t that in reality make Trump allied with Iran? (Actually the US is already de facto allied with Iran against Daesh, but no one is willing to admit it.)


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CCTV: “Russia uses Iranian base to bomb ISIL in Syria”

32 Responses

  1. Prof, I am one of Your Biggest Fans; I read all your print.
    I have been wondering why serious strikes like this did not happen long ago? Its a tiny country really, in population terms = so forces not that large, but They can mess things up for a long time? Why? Is it just for Business? Oil / Guns etc. How do They buy Guns etc? With Oil money? And is that what all the fuss is about? Can’t be just about religion cos there has yet to be one that says kill all others, so must be about money? BW Peter

  2. The Russian bomber deployment must temper the Saudi ambitions to cause further trouble. Riyadh is an hour’s flying time from the new Russian base.

    What you haven’t commented on is this announcement of Chinese entry into the battle. link to

    The appointment of an Admiral with Iranian experience is interesting.

  3. So, what you’re saying is that Erdogan’s not getting much in return for the $9bn in new incentives he handed Trump to build the Akkuyu nuke plant? Bummer

  4. Not all Russian actions are moves in a game with the US. I would imagine the Russians decided to fly from Iran for purely practical reasons and obviously the new arrangements they are forging with Tehran made this possible, then to avoid prior input from the US they decided to cut notice as short as possible. This suggests two realities. First they are operating to their own plan and want to get on with it, and that they pretty well knew how the US would play it and had no inclination to go down that path, particularly as they are already involved in a protracted back and forth over the ceasefire. On the other hand the US sees everything in terms of their interests and it’s clear from the exchanges in the DOS briefing yesterday that they were caught short on this one and are not sure how to respond to a fait accompli that might make any arrangement with Russia look like a US/Russia/Iran partnership. It would not surprise me if Russia’s overwhelming priority right now is to get a level of stability in Syria that allows some meaningful political developments to be underway before whichever candidate reaches the Oval Office.

  5. The US has been cautious about going toe to toe with other super powers. The preference has been to do battle with warlord controlled militias and rag tag armies (Iraq) that have limited if any navy, air force or standing army. Even then the results have been disastrous. Obama knows Russia and Iran are a different animal. The question is will Hillary or Trump know?

    • The Iranian government gave them that permission.

      Although this is a running Iraqi joke it doesn’t make it less true unfortunately. The Iraqis in 2010 accused Bashar of supporting AQ in Iraq and provided proofs and withdrew their ambassador. After a visit by the Iranian ambassador the cash strapped Iraqi government loaned the Assad government $10 billion and restored relations.

  6. The Russians were already overflying Iranian airspace (with permission I assume) from their bases in Southern Russia. They also have to overfly Iraq. I think that it is interesting that since last year Iraq has let Russia overfly its territory to supply it’s troops in Syria, but now it is also allowing overflights to bomb there. The US was pressuring Iraq to not allow the over flights before. I wonder what they are saying behind the scenes now? Hardly any coverage out there about this.

    • My questions exactly.
      I suspect bribes were paid, promises made, to Iraqi officials.
      It is sure a stick in our US eye.

  7. “Actually the US is already de facto allied with Iran against Daesh, but no one is willing to admit it.”

    After 5+ years of strife, if the US were to align more closely with Iran and Russia to defeat Daesh, this would definitely be a salubrious outcome Syrians, Iraqis and everyone on this planet. Logistically, we must have some relationships with Iranians and Russians, but we do ourselves a profound disservice when we simultaneously allow and support Saudi Arabia and Turkey in their funding of extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. The longer we continue this strategy of supporting Saudi Arabia and Turkey in supporting extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, the more we allow for the situation to further deteriorate. It is difficult to understand just what we are doing in Syria. Our politicians and statesmen in words suggest that Daesh is an organization that must be defeated, but our support for Saudi Arabia and Turkey for their policies in Syria are in complete odds with our stated positions.

    After 5+ years of strife, our statesmen should be able to tell Saudi Arabia and Turkey that their positions on toppling Assad are just simply unfeasible and not in our interests. He’s a war criminal that deserves to be tried, but Saudi and Turkish policies to bring about the toppling of Assad have had enormous costs for Syrians, Iraqis, everyone in the Near East, and Europeans too. Syrians and Iraqis must just want to get on with their lives and not be in the middle of greater schemes inflicted on their countries.

    President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have done a tremendous service to the world and America by completing the Iranian nuclear deal. If only they could break with the worst of Saudi and Turkish excesses and lawbreaking, the world would be a far better place for it.

      • Welcome to history. The US and the Saudis got in bed with each other in 1971 when the US defaulted on it’s currency (went off the gold standard) and became the BFF of the Saudis ergo the petro dollar.

        • Thanks for your reference. But just like the ‘no light’ relationship the US has with Israel (and its implications) has been more widely exposed in recent years. so (hopefully) the long US/Saudi relationship since 1971 (and what it means for US security) is also being more sharply defined.

    • As long as the US is allied with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, removing Assad and cutting off Iran’s link to Lebanon and Palestine will be in the US’s interests, even if it means to support Al Qaeda type Islamist extremists.

  8. don’t you think that the ceasefire failed because the USA has kept on supporting Al Qaida type of organizations in Syria? Because they prefer IS or Al Qaida in Syria to Assad? Pure madness, but the USA’s foreign policy lately seems to be formulated in an asylum.

    • The cease fire ended because the Syrian regime barrel bombed 6000 civilians to their graves during the “calm” period. Cease fires are two way streets.

      As for the Russian action, it reflects despair on their part and on the part of the Iranians. The Aleppo shock was too much to handle and the performance of every ground force involved including Hizbullah’s leader (who for the first time did not call the Syrian rebels Takfiris and called the war a “Fitnah” between brothers) was so pathetic the big guns had to come.

      As for bombing Saudi Arabia, this will trigger a world war that no one want to see it.

      • Barrell bombs is a propaganda trick Regular bombs are worse.
        What actually happened was a large jihadist offensive that took several towns, incl Khan Touman in southern Aleppo, and thus broke the cease fire. This was not widely reported in MSM that broadly prefers the jihadists.

  9. They are some protection from the belligerence toward Tehran of Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right, expansionist Israeli government, and of the new and reckless Saudi government, which is bombing Yemen, supporting Salafi extremists in Syria, and rattling sabers at Iran.

    Since the Next-POTUS-Presumptive has promised to “obliterate” the country, they might also be hoping that a closer relationship with Russia might at least make her hesitate.

  10. Well apologies for introducing the obvious again, but the Saudi government by most objective measures is far less desirable than the Russian one — more authoritarian (absolute monarchy), more illiberal (being gay punishable by death), more barbaric (beheads people), for years led the active rigging of the most significant global markets (OPEC), more likely to geopolitically interfere in nearby states, up to and including direct invasion (Yemen), more likely to have a strong negative influence on the US government (we cowered for years against releasing the 28 pages, the Bush’s, NeoCon’s, and possibly Clinton’s are said to be in their pockets). Yet we speak kindly of them as allies and coalition partners all the time.

    Food for thought. Tells you something about the how well US policy aligns with our values.

    • I’m not so sure that Russia is less likely to intervene in other countries than is SA. both are bad actors. You are missing a very important difference between the two states. Russia has hundreds of nuclear weapons. I do agree that we should back away from SA.

      • re: nukes: So do we. So do some allies. Doesn’t make a country any better or worse, despite any trash talk you might’ve heard directed at Iran and North Korea.

        • My point was not a moral or ethical one, but how much power and importance a state has if it has nuclear weapons. SA can be more easily ignored than can be Russia.

  11. Putin came up through the KGB and seems to have absorbed the values of the old Soviet regime. The Soviets made the Middle East a priority ever since 1956 and had sought to gain footholds there. Putin is resurrecting this approach. He is playing the mid-20th Century power politics game. However, it is an obsolete approach. I think that within 20 years we will have seen a steep decline in the importance of fossil fuels, greatly reducing the importance of Middle Eastern oil. Whatever happens there will only have regional importance. So, Putin is aiming for short to medium term gains when long term it won’t matter much. I see no reason to worry about this Russian move; if they want to get more involved in the region I think it is just a minefield anyway and the US is better off getting out of the region and letting the locals sort out their own problems.

    • Bush the elder came up though the CIA – that is never mentioned, is it?
      Assad overthrow would lead to Syria (apart from horrific ethnic cleansing of all non Sunnis) becoming an enormous Saudi supported jihadist base. The Chechens, Turkmens, Uighurs would return to Russia and China and spread violence and death – a death knell for the Silk Road.

      • “Bush the elder came up though the CIA – that is never mentioned, is it?”

        No it is not, because the statement is patently false. Bush the Elder served as CIA Director for one year, January 1976 to January 1977. He did not “come up through the CIA.”

        Bush the Elder’s career included Texas State Republican Chairman, Texas Congressman, Republican National Committee Chairman, UN Ambassador, Envoy to China, Vice President, and President. And one year with the CIA as Director.

  12. Netanyahu must be hopping mad at how this makes an Israeli strike against Iran so much more irrational and impractical.

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