US criticizes Russian bombing raid from Iran, calls act ‘unfortunate’
REUTERS photoThe United States on Aug. 16 bemoaned Russia’s use of an Iranian air base to launch a bombing raid in Syria, but credited Moscow for having given a brief advance warning.
The Russian Defense Ministry earlier in the day said long-range bombers and fighter jets took off from the Hamedan base in western Iran and “conducted a group air strike against targets of the Islamic State [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL] and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups” in the provinces of Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Idlib.
“It’s unfortunate, but not surprising or unexpected,” AFP quoted U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner as saying.
“Frankly, that only makes more difficult what is already a very contentious and complex and difficult situation. And it only pushes us further away from what we’re all ... trying to pursue, which is a credible nation-wide cessation of hostilities and a political process in Geneva that leads to a peaceful transition,” Toner said.
Earlier, Baghdad-based U.S. military spokesman Colonel Chris Garver said Russian authorities had notified the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria shortly before launching the bombing mission from Iran.
The coalition since last year has operated a “memorandum of understanding” with Russia, whereby the two military forces notify each other of flights during their separate bombing campaigns to avoid accidents in the skies over Syria.
“The Russians did notify the coalition as per the memorandum of understanding for safety of flight,” Garver said.
“They informed us they were coming through and we ensured safety of flight as those bombers passed through the area and toward their target and then when they passed out again. They did not impact coalition operations in either Iraq or Syria during the time,” he added.
Garver noted that ISIL fighters are concentrated only in Deir Ezzor and not Aleppo or Idlib.
Toner said Russia continues to “predominantly target moderate Syrian opposition forces.”
Moscow had provided “not a lot” of warning but that it “was enough time to make sure that we could ensure safety of flight,” Garver said.
He did not comment when asked if Russia had sought overflight permission from the government of Iraq, whose airspace provides quickest access to Syria from Iran.
Kerry, Lavrov talk over Syria, Aleppo
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 16 discussed by phone how to implement a Russian-U.S. deal on coordinating action in Syria and securing a cease-fire, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters.
It said the phone call had taken place at Washington’s initiative and was focused on the situation in Aleppo and on discussing how best to implement the deal which Moscow said had been reached during a visit by Kerry to Moscow in July.
Kerry said after those marathon talks last month that Washington and Moscow had reached a common understanding on the steps now needed to get Syria’s troubled peace process back on track.
Russia on Aug. 15 said it and the United States were close to joining forces in some form around Aleppo, but U.S. officials have not confirmed this.
“We continue to speak with Russia ... about ways that we can put in place a credible, nationwide cease-fire, full access to humanitarian assistance, and then again get negotiations restarted in Geneva,” Toner said.
Iran says Russia has no ‘permanent base’ in the country
In Iran, just one day after Moscow announced launching airstrikes on Syria from Iran, the speaker of the Iranian parliament stressed on Aug. 17 that Russia does not have a permanent military base within the Islamic Republic, the Associated Press reported.
The Aug. 17 comments by the Iranian official, Ali Larijani, seem geared at easing domestic concerns over the strikes. Iran’s constitution, ratified after its 1979 Islamic Revolution, bars foreign militaries from having bases within the country.
In his remarks, reported by the state-run IRNA news agency, Larijani did not directly discuss the strikes, though he said Iran has “cooperated with Russia, as it is our ally on regional issues, especially on Syrian issues.”
“We have good cooperation with Russia and we say it loud and clear,” Larijani said.
The fact that Iran allowed Russian warplanes to take off from its territory to bomb targets in Syria was an unprecedented move, underscoring the deepening cooperation between two powerhouses heavily invested in the Syrian civil war.
It is virtually unheard in recent history for Iran to allow a foreign power to use one of its bases to stage attacks. Russia has also never used the territory of another country in the Middle East for its operations inside Syria, where it has been carrying out an aerial campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for nearly a year. Iran is also a major supporter of al-Assad.