MS Risk Blog

Growing cooperation between Iran and Russia

Posted on in Iran, Russia, Syria title_rule

The security implications of what appears to be a foreign policy matter.

Moscow’s expansion of its arms sales in the Middle East gives it another dimension through which to pursue its geopolitical goals. Moscow has long been the world’s second largest arms exporter after the US, with average annual income in 2012−15 reaching $14.5 billion. But over the past decade, it has particularly increased its arms exports to the Middle East, part of a broader Russian strategy of re-establishing Moscow as a key player in the region. However until recently, Russia was cautious in using weapons exports as political leverage. This has changed, and the growth of the Russian share of the Middle East arms market will make the Kremlin more decisive still. The instability in the Middle East suggests that that region will remain one of the chief markets for arms for years to come and will help Russian arms suppliers to challenge US dominance there.

On the 16th of August, The Russian Defense Ministry reported long-range Russian TU-22M3 bombers based in Iran have struck a number of targets inside Syria. Russian bombers flying from an Iranian air base struck rebel targets across, dramatically underscoring the two countries’ growing military ties and highlighting Russia’s ambitions for greater influence in a turbulent Middle East. The long-range Tu-22 bombers took off from a base near Hamadan in western Iran and launched raids in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour and Idlib. The ministry said the bombers were accompanied by Russian fighter jets based in Syria. Russia has carried out strikes in support of government troops there where both countries are loyal allies of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian intervention marked a turning point in the fate of the Assad regime, which had been losing ground to rebel forces. But until now, Russia’s long-range bombers, which require longer airstrips, had to be launched from Russian territory more than 1,200 miles away. Now, those same bombers need to fly only about 400 miles from Iran to Syria. The shorter distance, using less fuel and allowing a bigger payload, will allow Russia to intensify its air campaign against rebel-held areas. Syrian government troops and opposition fighters are now locked in a battle for the strategic city of Aleppo, where residents face a growing humanitarian crisis. The flights marked the first time Russia has launched strikes from Iranian territory. Iran has long banned foreign militaries from establishing bases on its soil. But the raids appeared to signal a budding alliance that would expand Russia’s military footprint in the region.

Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that its long-range bombers only struck targets linked to the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a group that formally split from al-Qaeda last month and changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra. The strikes destroyed five major ammunition depots, training camps and three command posts. But rights groups have criticized both Russia and the Syrian regime for repeated strikes on civilian targets, including homes, schools and hospitals. Conversely Russian and Syrian officials have denied those reports.

On Tuesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Syrian and Russian troops have used banned incendiary weapons in civilian areas. The joint Syrian-Russian military operation has been using incendiary weapons, which burn their victims and start fires, in civilian areas of Syria in violation of international law.

Incendiary weapons, as the term is understood in international humanitarian law (IHL) describes weapons that act mainly through fire and heat. Napalm and white phosphorous are probably the best known incendiary substances used in incendiary weapons. 1980 Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III to the CCW) prohibits the aerial delivery, in relation to the conduct of hostilities during armed conflict, of incendiary weapons within a concentration of civilians.

The illegal use was already addressed in June 2016 when the Russian state-run television reportedly released a video footage showing incendiary weapons, specifically, RBK-500 ZAB-2.5SM bombs, being loaded on a Su-34 fighter-ground attack aircraft. The use of incendiary weapons by Russia was confirmed by Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, in a letter to Human Rights Watch. Lavrov attributed the ‘significant humanitarian damage’ caused by incendiary weapons in Syria to their ‘improper use’. Incendiary weapons have been used at least 18 times over the past nine weeks, including in attacks on the opposition-held areas in the cities of Aleppo and Idlib on August 7, 2016.

Countries meeting at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva on August 29, 2016 should condemn the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in civilian areas of Syria in violation of the treaty’s Protocol III on incendiary weapons. However it is important to remember that the implementation of such a belligerent tactic has been historically shared by many other countries despite the international conventions; an example of that is the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Ukraine conflict in 2014.