Russia is now using an Iranian base to fight in Syria. Why is that important?

On Tuesday, Russian bombers launched airstrikes in Syria from a base located in Iran, which could could have significant repercussions for Russia's military and political influence in the Middle East.

Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP
In this frame grab from video provided by Russian Defense Ministry press service, Russian long range bomber Tu-22M3 flies during an air strike over the Aleppo region of Syria on Tuesday. Russia's Defense Ministry said Tuesday that Russian warplanes have taken off from a base in Iran to target Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Russia launched its first attacks against Syrian targets from an Iranian airbase on Tuesday, airstrikes directed against the Islamic State and other militants in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, and Dier al-Zour, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. 

Russia has been a major player in the country's civil conflict since September 2015, but the airstrikes would indicate that Russia and Iran are working more closely than ever before. A military partnership between Russia and Iran would have the potential to solidify Russia's foothold in the region, and shift the balance of power across the Middle East. 

The airstrikes were carried out by long-range Tupolev-22M3 bombers from Hamadan air base, according to the Russian Defense Ministry's website. The bombers would have had to have flown in from Russia otherwise, though Russia often conducts military operations from bases in Syria itself.

"There is some military advantage to this, but there is obviously also a political dimension here," Christopher S. Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "This can be seen as a political statement that demonstrates the strength and the depth of the Russian-Iranian bond...[and] by extension, the Russian-Syrian-Iranian league."

Russia has been instrumental in supporting President Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing civil war in Syria, as the Monitor has previously reported. The two countries have been military allies since the cold war. 

“There is no doubt that the Russian intervention has significantly changed the military dynamic in Syria,” Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Monitor in February, calling air strikes “the most obvious element in this.”

Russia and Iran are Syria's two most important allies, and the joint operation between the two countries for Tuesday's airstrikes may create a new power dynamic in the Middle East. While Syria and Russia have a strong military bond, the relationship between Iran and Russia has been more political than military until now, Dr. Chivvis says, noting that the decision to use Hamadan airbase "will require a closer practical military cooperation between Russia and Iranian forces."

Tuesday's airstrikes are not the first indicator of increased cooperation between the two countries. Last week, Russia asked Iran and Iraq to allow Russian cruise missiles headed to terrorist targets in Syria to fly through their airspace, according to the BBC.

This cooperation could lead to a much more significant Russian military presence in the Middle East, and could help Russia become the main broker of peace agreements in Syria, as The New York Times reports. Russia's probable goal in brokering piece is to reinstate Assad or another pro-Russian leader, while the United States supports anti-Assad rebels. But both the US and Russia have launched attacks against their common enemy in Syria, the Islamic State.

Russia's presence in Iran would also elevate Russia's ability to extend its political influence onto other countries in the region. Chivvis says that while Russia's foreign and security policies have been "assertive and aggressive" in the past few years, intervention significantly beyond its own borders is something new.

"This is not on [Russia's] periphery, so Russia is demonstrating that in addition to aggressive pursuit of its interests, or its perceived interest, along its borders, Russia is also determined to play a very significant role in the Middle East," he says.

The military cooperation with Iran is the latest move in an apparent strategy to reach beyond its borders and reassert itself as a global power, he adds. 

"This isn't an entirely new development, but it is something that is unquestionably significant," says Chivvis.

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