Russian warplanes have bombed Syria from a base in Iran for the first time on August 16, the Russian defence ministry said on Tuesday. The bombing raids from a base in western Iran mark a new level of cooperation between Russia and Iran, which are both fighting in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Tu-22M3 and Su-34 bombers took off from the Hamedan airbase and hit Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra targets in the provinces of Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib, the ministry said. (Jabhat al-Nusra does not, in fact, exist under that name anymore. It announced last month it was splitting from al-Qaeda and forming a united front with other rebel groups.)
Russia has been flying bombing missions from an airbase in Syria since late last year, but according to Russian state-owned broadcaster RT, its runway is too short to fit fully loaded Tu-22M3s. The Russian military is refurbishing the Hmeynim airbase and lengthening the runway, RT said, so that heavier bombers can take off from it in the future.
Until now, the only way to get Russia's medium and large bomber aircraft over Syria was to take off from Russian bases, which means a round-trip of at least 4,000 km (2,500 miles). Using Hamedan in Iran means having to fly less than half that distance, which could mean carrying more bombs.
Tuesday's airstrikes have hit ammunition and fuel depots, training camps, control centers and "a significant number of militants," the ministry said, adding that the bombers were escorted by Su-30SM and Su-35S fighters from Hmeynim and all aircraft returned to base.
The successful execution of a complex mission flown from two airfields outside Russia is a military milestone for Russia, which until the Syrian campaign had not conducted such extensive air operations abroad. At the same time, the Russian navy is conducting a live-fire exercise in the eastern Mediterranean off the Syrian coast, adding another layer to its military operations in the region.
It is not clear yet which countries the Russian bombers overflew to reach Syria from Iran, although the most direct route is over Iraq, and Russian warplanes have been known to use its airspace before.
The Middle East Eye website quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, as telling Iran's IRNA state news agency on Tuesday that Moscow and Tehran are "exchanging capacities and facilities" in the fight against terrorism in Syria.