Military first for Iran as Russian bombers based on its territory launch air strikes on Syria

Russian bombers began flying missions over Syria from an Iranian airbase on Tuesday, the first time the Islamic republic has allowed a foreign power to conduct military operations from its territory since the 1979 revolution.

Tu-22М3 long range bombers and SU-34 strike fighters flying from Hamadan airbase in Western Iran struck targets near Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Idlib on Tuesday morning, the Russian ministry of defence said in a statement.

“Flying with full bomb loads from Iran’s Hamadan airbase, the aircraft carried out group attacks on Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra positions,” the ministry said. Jabhat al-Nusra is the former name of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a powerful rebel jihadist group previously affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Fighter escorts for the mission flew out of Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in western Syria. All aircraft returned to their respective bases after the mission, the ministry said.

Iranian officials confirmed that the country has offered Russia use of military infrastructure for its air campaign in Syria on Tuesday.

“Cooperation between Tehran and Moscow against terrorism in Syria is of a strategic character. We must unite out potential and capabilities,” Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the country’s IRNA news agency.

Russian state television showed footage of bombers and a transport aircraft apparently landing in Iran on Tuesday morning, but it is unclear how many aircraft have been deployed there or for how long.

The deployment strengthens a de-facto alliance between Russia and Iran in Syria, where both countries have intervened in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Iran is believed to have deployed thousands of troops and auxiliaries to the war torn country over the past few years.

Russia launched air strikes in support of Syrian forces in September 2015, and is also believed to have deployed undisclosed numbers of artillery, tanks, and special forces.

Tuesday’s mission is thought to be the first time Russian aircraft have flown missions from Iran since Moscow entered the war, and potentially marks a major expansion of Russia’s military presence in the Middle East.

The deployment brings considerable tactical advantages. Long range bombers like the TU-22s that took part in Tuesday’s raid are unable to use the short runways at Hmeymim, and operating from Iran will more than half flying time from Russia.

"The issue of costs for combat actions is paramount right now, we should stick to the current defence ministry budget," said Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, an MP and retired commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. “Flying Tu-22s from Iran means less fuel and bigger bomb loads,” he added.

Iran has a historically strained relationship with Russia, and granting foreign forces access to its territory for the first time in four decades was “quite a brave decision” motivated by military necessity, said Sergei Sazhin, a professor at Moscow’s Institute for Middle Eastern Studies.

“Both countries are somewhat dissatisfied with the performance of Assad’s forces, and allowing Russia to base closer to Syria has clear military benefits,” he said.

The closer Russian-Iranian alliance may have been prompted by an escalating struggle for control of Syria’s second city of Aleppo, where a Syrian rebel offensive shattered a government siege earlier this month.

Victory in Aleppo would be a triumph for Mr Assad and deal a potentially knock-out blow to the rebel cause. Defeat would be the first major setback since Russia entered the war a major embarrassment for Vladimir Putin.

Nineteen civilians were killed by Russian or regime airstrikes on rebel-held districts of the city on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

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