MOSCOW: Russian bombers began flying missions over Syria from an Iranian airbase yesterday (Tuesday), the first time the Islamic Republic has allowed a foreign power to conduct military operations from its territory since the 1979 revolution.
Tu-22M3 long range bombers and SU-34 strike fighters flying from a base 200 miles west of Tehran struck targets near Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Idlib in the first mission from Iran yesterday 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.
Iranian officials confirmed the country had offered Russia use of military infrastructure for its air campaign in Syria. "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 yesterday, 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 dispatched 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 special forces, tanks, and artillery. Yesterday's mission is thought to be the first time Russian aircraft have flown missions from Iran and potentially marks a major expansion of Russia's military presence in the Middle East.
The deployment also brings considerable tactical advantages. Long range bombers like the TU-22s that took part yesterday's raid are unable to use the short runways at Hmeymim, Syria, and operating from Iran will more than half flying time from Russia.
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" prompted by battlefield considerations said Sergei Sazhin, a professor at Moscow's Institute for Middle Eastern Studies.
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 a week ago.