FPI Bulletin: Russia, Iran Escalate Military Ties

August 22, 2016

Russia’s recent use of an Iranian airbase to bomb targets in Syria reflects a burgeoning strategic partnership rooted in shared regional objectives. Though Tehran terminated the arrangement today likely due to domestic perceptions that it rendered the Islamist regime a subordinate of Moscow, the episode demonstrates that both countries, working in tandem, seek to undermine U.S. interests and leadership in the region. Washington can no longer regard either government as partners to defeat the Islamic State. Rather, the Obama administration should abandon its plan to sign a military cooperation agreement with Moscow, implement its long-discussed “Plan B” by increasing its support for moderate Syrian rebels, and increase economic pressure on Iran.

On August 16, the Kremlin announced that Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and Su-34 tactical bombers had taken off from northwestern Iran’s Hamadan air base to attack rebel forces in Aleppo, Deir Ezzour and Idlib. The deployment — the first time a foreign military used Iranian territory since World War II — enabled Moscow’s air force to reduce fuel costs and travel time, increase the payload of its weapons, and boost the frequency of its attacks. Moreover, the arrangement, which may have actually commenced as early as last November, serves to make a political statement that Russia and Iran now constitute the region’s preeminent powers.

Moscow’s utilization of Iran’s airbase is particularly surprising in light of Iran’s fierce anti-colonialism. Iran’s constitution expressly prohibits foreign militaries from having bases in the country. Last week, however, Iranian leaders tried to defend their decision by offering a crucial distinction, noting that Tehran had not transferred any Iranian territory to Russian control, but had simply allowed Moscow’s air force to use its base temporarily. “The fact that we cooperate with Russia as an ally on regional issues like Syria doesn’t mean that we have given a base to Russia,” said Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament. Iran’s subsequent reversal of this policy likely reflects its recognition that this argument had fallen on deaf ears.

The new collaboration also came as the besieged city of Aleppo reaches a critical inflection point in Syria’s civil war. In recent months, Russian and Syrian bombardments have targeted Aleppo’s hospitals, schools and other non-military sites, creating what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called a “humanitarian catastrophe unprecedented in the over five years of bloodshed and suffering in the Syrian conflict.” Some 730 civilians have died, including more than 100 children, a reality most vividly illustrated by the release of a video showing a dazed and bloodied 5-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, after his rescue from a bombed-out Aleppo building. The U.N. has also launched an investigation into a possible chlorine gas attack in the city earlier this month.

Despite these atrocities, both Moscow and Tehran have disingenuously portrayed their cooperation as an effort to defeat the Islamic State (IS) — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — and other terrorist groups. Yet in his final press briefing last week as the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Col. Christopher Garver noted that of Russia’s latest targets in Syria, only Deir Ezzour harbors an ISIS presence. The United States has “not struck targets in Aleppo in a very long time,” he said. “We have not struck targets in Idlib in a very long time if we have at all. We don’t see concentrations of ISIS in those areas.”

Nevertheless, the Obama administration has effectively validated the two regimes’ narrative by treating them as partners with common objectives. This Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet in Geneva to discuss a proposal to share intelligence and cooperate militarily in order to combat IS. Last week, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the United States is “still committed to having those discussion[s] and those negotiations and to trying to get those proposals agreed to.” Such a policy, which the White House hopes will lead to a nationwide cease-fire, ignores Moscow’s lengthy record not only of attacking moderate rebels while using IS as a cover, but also of exploiting negotiations to secure de facto U.S. approval of Damascus’ territorial gains.

The administration’s failure to recognize this reality stems from its unwillingness or inability to recognize the regional dynamics that produced it. In large measure, the rise of ISIS, and the subsequent increase of Russian and Iranian engagement in Syria, resulted from the leadership vacuum and ensuing chaos spurred by America’s withdrawal from the Middle East in the preceding years. To avoid antagonizing Tehran and thus jeopardize the July 2015 nuclear deal, the White House has deliberately worked to isolate its campaign against IS from broader rebel efforts to defeat the Iran-backed Assad regime.

As Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told CNN last week, this artificial separation dooms U.S. efforts. “The Obama administration’s myopic focus on the Islamic State while leaving the larger Syrian civil war unanswered in a sense is trying to fix with a military hammer a deeper political problem,” he said. This political problem will continue to metastasize if the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge the motivations of its key enablers, Russia and China, and generate leverage that can influence their behavior. By increasing its support for moderate Syrian rebels and reinvigorating sanctions on Iran for its regional aggression, Washington can demonstrate that Moscow and Tehran’s misbehavior will trigger serious consequences that compel them to reassess the cost-benefit calculus of their policies.

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