In Multipolarity, Russia

Aug 17, 2016–Three reports are enclosed, two by Alexander Mercouris of The Duran and one by Associated Press. Two of the articles analyze a new Russia-Iran military agreement.

Russia just tipped the balance of power in the Mediterranean

By Alexander Mercouris, The Duran, Aug 15, 2016

The Russia-Syria agreement provides Russia with permanent base rights in Syria capable for the first time of challenging US strategic dominance in the eastern Mediterranean.

Though there has been remarkably little discussion of the subject in the Western media, Russia last week quietly acquired for the first time in its modern history a proper permanent base in the Mediterranean.

Map showing Russian air base at Khmeimim, Syria (circles show range of several air defense missiles)

Map showing Russian air base at Khmeimim, Syria (circles show range of several air defense missiles)

Following negotiations between the Syrian government and Russia an agreement dating from 2015 has now been ratified by Russia turning the Russian air base at Khmeimim in Syria into a permanent base. In other words Russia will retain the base at Khmeimim beyond the conclusion of the Syrian conflict, and its presence there has just been made permanent.

That the Syrian government has wanted to grant the base to Russia on a permanent basis has been known for some time. From the Syrian point of view the Russian base not only guarantees Russia’s support for the present Syrian government but also provides Syria with a measure of protection it has never had before from Israeli air incursions. These have been a continuous reality for decades with Syria lacking the capability to prevent them. The Russians do have that capability and the Syrians will be hoping that because of the presence of the base they will now use it to protect Syria from Israeli air incursions. As it happens reports suggest that the number of Israeli incursions of Syrian airspace have fallen off significantly since the Russian Aerospace Forces deployed to Syria last autumn, with the Israelis now careful to keep the Russians informed of their flights.

Whilst the Syrian government is known to have been keen to grant Russia a permanent base, the Russians have up to now been less sure. Establishing a permanent foreign base in Syria is for the Russians a major departure from their former policy given the Russian military’s overwhelming focus on defending Russian territory rather than projecting Russian military power far beyond Russia’s borders.

Some Russian military officials are also believed to have questioned the military utility of a Syrian base, pointing out that the eastern Mediterranean where the base is located is well within the range of Russian ballistic and cruise missiles. Importantly, judging from comments he made in December last year, one of the leading skeptics was none other than Putin himself:

“about the base, opinions differ, you know. Some people in Europe and the US repeatedly said that our interests would be respected, and that our [military] base can remain there if we want it to. But I do not know if we need a base there. A military base implies considerable infrastructure and investment.

After all, what we have there today is our planes and temporary modules, which serve as a cafeteria and dormitories. We can pack up in a matter of two days, get everything aboard Antei transport planes and go home. Maintaining a base is different.

Some believe, including in Russia, that we must have a base there. I am not so sure. Why? My European colleagues told me that I am probably nurturing such ideas. I asked why, and they said: so that you can control things there. Why would we want to control things there? This is a major question.

We showed that we in fact did not have any medium-range missiles. We destroyed them all, because all we had were ground-based medium-range missiles. The Americans have destroyed their Pershing ground-based medium-range missiles as well. However, they have kept their sea- and aircraft-based Tomahawks. We did not have such missiles, but now we do – a 1,500-kilometre-range Kalibr sea-based missile and aircraft-carried Kh-101 missile with a 4,500-kilometre range.

So why would we need a base there? Should we need to reach somebody, we can do so without a base.

It might make sense, I am not sure. We still need to give it some thought. Perhaps we might need some kind of temporary site, but taking root there and getting ourselves heavily involved does not make sense, I believe. We will give it some thought.”

These comments, whilst carefully leaving the option open, suggest a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea of a permanent base and an ongoing debate on the subject within the Russian leadership. Presumably it was these doubts and this debate that held up ratification of the base agreement for so long. It is clear that that debate has now been settled, with the agreement finally ratified and with the decision finally made to make Khmeimim into a permanent base.

It should be said clearly that this is a major shift. Tsarist Russia did operate naval bases in the Greek islands and in Piedmont in Italy in the nineteenth century, and the USSR negotiated naval and air facilities at various times with Albania, Yugoslavia, Syria and Egypt, which however all fell well short of being true permanent naval and air bases. The USSR did seek at the end of the Second World War Western agreement for a Russian base in Libya, but unsurprisingly this was refused.

All these previous projects proved ephemeral or stillborn, with whatever temporary arrangements the Russians negotiated with the various Mediterranean powers always reversed whenever these powers realigned towards the West, as they invariably did. The one exception was the Russian naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus which dates back to 1971. Though it has attracted huge attention during the Syrian conflict, like all the other facilities the USSR acquired in the Mediterranean during the Cold War it is in no sense a base. As even the BBC has been obliged to admit, the facility at Tartus is at best a support and resupply station for Russian ships in the Mediterranean. It is too small to host Russian naval warships of frigate size and upwards, and has no facilities to host large numbers of Russian sailors or personnel such as a true base would need to do.

The military reality is that since 1943 it is the US Navy which together with its naval allies (primarily Britain and France) has been the overwhelmingly dominant military power in the Mediterranean. Since the Second World War the Mediterranean has been in military terms an American lake.

The base at Khmeimin however is different from anything that has existed before. Not only does it already host a formidable strike force of aircraft roughly equivalent to that of a US Navy carrier strike group, but it is heavily defended by formidable air defence assets including S400, BUK and Pantsir anti aircraft missiles, and contains a host of radar, electronic warfare and command facilities. It is also defended by a formidable force of Russian ground troops, said to be of battalion strength. Moreover there is talk the base is going to be significantly expanded to make it capable of hosting much heavier strike aircraft, possibly TU22M3s. Khmeimim also forms part of what is becoming a very powerful complex of Russian military bases and facilities in Syria, which obviously include the Tartus naval facility (which may also now be expanded) and a top secret Russian listening post which has long been rumoured to exist somewhere in Latakia province.

In aggregate this is a base complex of a sort the Russians have never had in the Mediterranean before, and one that has now been made permanent.

The Russian base in Syria cannot challenge the supremacy of the US Navy in the whole of the Mediterranean area. However it does have the potential to change drastically political and military perceptions in its eastern half. There is now the prospect of Russian fighters flying over the eastern Mediterranean in regular patrols, monitoring US warships and aircraft in the area, and making Russia’s presence felt in the area as it has never been felt before. It is one thing to know in the abstract that Russian ballistic and cruise missiles can reach this area. It is quite another actually to be able to see Russian military aircraft physically present there. The psychological and political impact on the countries that border the eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel) and on the US Navy (in an area where it has long been accustomed to sailing unchallenged) cannot be overstated, and would be tremendous.

All this of course depends on the eventual outcome of the conflict in Syria. By establishing a permanent base there Russia has just raised the stakes, a fact that undoubtedly explains the intensity of the conflict.

Russia just deployed heavy bombers to Iran

Alexander Mercouris, The Duran, Aug 16, 2016

Whilst the true state of relations between Turkey and Russia remains murky, the alignment of Russia with the other great Central Asian power – Iran – is intensifying.

News came today that heavy TU-22M3 Russian bombers together with SU-34s are operating against Jihadi targets in Syria from a base in Hamadan in Iran.

Map shows location of Hamadan, Iran, west of Tehran

Map shows location of Hamadan, Iran, west of Tehran

This is primarily a political not a military act. TU-22M3s have the range to strike anywhere in Syria from their bases in southern Russia and have repeatedly shown their capacity to do so. There is no operational reason for them to fly to Syria from Hamadan.[1] That Russia has chosen to fly its TU-22M3s out of Hamadan is therefore a political statement by Russia that Russia and Iran are military allies in the joint fight against Islamist terrorism in Syria.

The presence of Russian bombers in Hamadan in Iran signals something else. This is a powerful statement of support by Russia for Iran and for the Iranian government. Just as the presence of the now permanent Russian air base at Khmeimim renders all but impossible or at least extremely difficult US and Israeli strikes on Syria, so the presence of Russian bombers in Iran is a powerful warning against any US or Israeli plans for strikes on Iran such as might once again be considered by an incoming US administration following the US Presidential election. This is potentially important since both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whatever differences they might have on Russia, both have history as hardliners against Iran.

Russian Tupolev TU-22M3 long range bomber

Russian Tupolev TU-22M3 long range bomber

The deployment of Russian bombers to Iran is going hand in hand with a purposeful convergence of Russian political and economic ties. It comes shortly after Putin’s meeting in Baku with Iran’s President Rouhani and Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev, and it comes following Russia’s diplomatic support to Iran in the nuclear negotiations with the US, and news of a growing strengthening of economic ties between Russia and Iran.

Iran is on line to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation next year, has just received a substantial Russian credit, and is broaching negotiations to set up a free trade zone with the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union, which is to include Azerbaijan.

It is also surely not a coincidence that Russian Defence Minister Shoigu has just completed a somewhat mysterious visit to Azerbaijan. What the precise point of that visit was is unclear (it is unlikely to have had anything to do with the Nagorno Karabakh dispute), but it seems likely that it was in some way connected to the recent Russian military deployment to Iran.

Looking further ahead, should the Russian deployment to Iran become permanent, as the Russian deployment to Syria has now become, then it will potentially have as big a military and political strategic impact in the Gulf area as the Russian base in Syria potentially has for the eastern Mediterranean.

Whilst we are still a long way off from Russian aircraft patrols over the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz from Iranian bases, that has suddenly become at least an imaginable possibility. Whether that happens or is even on the cards is another matter.

Some words of caution are in order. Unlike Syria, Iran most definitely is not dependent on Russia for its survival. On the contrary, it is a great civilisation and a Great Power with a long history – far older than Russia’s – and a very active policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Relations between Iran and Russia have not always been easy and Iran is known to take a dim view of some of Russia’s diplomatic moves with regard to Syria. There are also people in Iran – and even more in the Iranian diaspora – who would prefer Iran to realign with the US.

It cannot therefore be said with certainty that this burgeoning relationship between Iran and Russia will in the end bear fruit, or that it will continue beyond the so far purely tactical alliance the two countries have forged to fight militant Jihadism in Syria. However, for the moment, the convergence between the two parties is becoming stronger and with the deployment – however temporary – of Russian bombers to Hamadan its profile has just taken a dramatic increase.

Note by New Cold
[1] From the Associated Press report further below in this news posting: ” The bombers previously have flown from their base in Mozdok in southern Russia and had to cover more than 2,000 kilometers to reach targets in Syria. The distance from Hamedan is less than half that. Russia’s Tu-22M3 bomber is capable of carrying more than 20 metric tons of bombs if flown from Iran.”

Related reading:
Russian deployment of bombers to Iran is legal, West should stop trying to find fault – Foreign Minister Lavrov,, Aug 17, 2016

In a first, Russia uses Iran base to bomb targets in Syria

By Zeina Karam, Associated Press, Wednesday, Aug 16, 2016

BEIRUT –  Iran allowed Russian warplanes to take off from its territory to bomb targets in Syria on Tuesday, an unprecedented move that underscores the deepening cooperation between two powerhouses heavily invested in the Syrian civil war.

The Iranian deployment increases Russia’s foothold in the Middle East and widens Moscow’s bombing campaign in Syria, bolstering President Bashar Assad’s government ahead of a new round of peace talks the United Nations hopes to convene in coming weeks.

The long-range bombers took off early Tuesday near the Iranian city of Hamedan, 280 kilometers (175 miles) southwest of the Iranian capital, and struck targets in three provinces in northern and eastern Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

The Russian warplanes then returned to Russia and no Russian forces remained stationed in Iran, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to reporters about the matter.

“Russia’s use of an Iranian base represents a turning point in Russia’s relations in the Middle East. … It sends a powerful message to the United States and regional powers that Russia is here to stay,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

Russia had talked about the possibility of flying planes out of Iran since late last year, but its decision to do so on Tuesday came as a surprise, U.S. officials said.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the operations. Underscoring the U.S. confusion, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that Washington was “still trying to assess what exactly they’re doing.”

Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the Russians activated a communications link with coalition officials just ahead of the bomber mission.

“The Russians did notify the coalition,” he said, adding that they “informed us they were coming through” airspace that could potentially put them in proximity to U.S. and coalition aircraft in Iraq or Syria.

Asked how much advance notice the Russians gave the U.S., Garver said, “We did know in time” to maintain safety of flight.

U.S. officials said the setup at the Iranian air base occurred very quickly, perhaps overnight. One military official said the Russians flew four Tu-22 Backfire bombers to the Iranian air base, along with a Russian cargo plane loaded with the munitions for the bombers, just hours before the bombers flew their missions. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

It is virtually unheard of in Iran’s recent history to allow a foreign power to use one of its bases to stage attacks. Russia has also never used the territory of another country in the Middle East for its operations inside Syria, where it has been carrying out an aerial campaign in support of Assad’s government for nearly a year.

Tuesday’s action suggests cooperation on the highest levels between Moscow and Tehran, both key allies of the embattled Syrian president, and sends a powerful message to the United States and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, which have seen Iran as the arch-enemy.

The Russian move provides a psychological boost for the Assad-Iran-Hezbollah alliance, illustrating that Russia is strategically committed to stay on course in Syria.

It also heralds even more intense Russian bombardment of Syrian cities. Moscow already stands accused of indiscriminate bombing that has killed many civilians in Syria and of using incendiary weapons in civilian areas — a claim that was repeated by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday. Russia denies the charges.

Syrian rebels and opposition activists reacted angrily to the news.

The Russians “are taking advantage of the political vacuum that was left by America and Western countries that withdrew,” said Paris-based senior Syrian opposition figure George Sabra. “It is clear today that the Russians are fighting their global war in Syria.”

The Russian deployment in Iran comes a day after Russia’s defense minister said Moscow and Washington are edging closer to an agreement on Syria that would help defuse the situation in the besieged northern city of Aleppo.

A U.S. official said, however, that discussions with the Russians are still ongoing and no agreement is close.

Russia and the United States have been discussing greater coordination for striking extremists in Syria, but they have been unable to reach agreement on which militant groups could be targeted.

Gerges, the analyst, said the new developments put to rest any hope of coordination between the United States and Russia in Syria. “It is just too poisonous for the Obama administration. Too costly at this particular moment,” he said.

In Tehran, the state-run IRNA news agency quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying that Tehran and Moscow have exchanged “capacity and possibilities” in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Moscow and Tehran have been expanding their ties in recent months after most of the sanctions against Iran were lifted following the nuclear deal with world powers.

Russian military experts say the deployment of Russian bombers at the Iranian base sharply cuts the distance to targets in Syria, allowing them to carry a bigger load of bombs.

The bombers previously have flown from their base in Mozdok in southern Russia, and had to cover more than 2,000 kilometers to reach targets in Syria. The distance from Hamedan is less than half that. Russia’s Tu-22M3 bomber is capable of carrying more than 20 metric tons of bombs if flown from Iran.

The deployment appeared to stem from political and strategic objectives, rather than military needs.

While flying the warplanes from Hamedan allows Russia to pack a heavier punch in striking the militants’ positions, the same job could have been accomplished by flying from the central Syrian air base at Hmeimeem or by increasing the number of bombers flying from Russia.

A top Russian lawmaker, Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, said Russia’s decision to use a base in Iran will help to cut costs, which is “paramount right now.”

The Russian ministry statement said the Su-34 and Tu-22M3 bombers targeted the Islamic State group and militants of the al-Qaida-linked group formerly known as the Nusra Front in Aleppo, as well as in Deir el-Zour and Idlib, destroying five major ammunition depots, training camps and three command posts.

The nearest air base to Hamedan is Shahid Nojeh, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the city. Russian aircraft have been reported to land there before. In December, the American Enterprise Institute said in a report based on satellite imagery that a Russian Su-34 “Fullback” strike fighter landed there in late November. It said a Russian Il-76 “Candid” transport plane also landed around the same time before both took off, suggesting the Su-34 may have suffered a mechanical issue.

Iran’s constitution, ratified after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, bans the establishment of any foreign military base in the country. However, nothing bars Iranian officials from allowing foreign countries to use an airfield.

The announcement from Russia marks the first significant stationing of its troops there since World War II, when allied British and Soviet forces invaded Iran to secure oil fields and keep Allied supply lines open.

Russia says its bombing campaign in Syria is focused on extremist groups but it has frequently struck other targets, including more moderate rebels fighting Assad’s forces. Last week, Russian bombers launched a wave of airstrikes on the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s de factor capital in northern Syria, killing at least 20 civilians according to Syrian opposition activists.

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns in Washington, Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.


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