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Russian flights carrying arms over Iran, Iraq raise tensions

Syria buildup stirs new friction; Putin move poses US policy threat

WASHINGTON — Russia is using an air corridor over Iraq and Iran to fly military equipment and personnel to a new air hub in Syria, openly defying US efforts to block the shipments and significantly increasing tensions with Washington.

US officials disclosed Sunday that at least seven giant Russian Condor transport planes had taken off from a base in southern Russia during the past week to ferry equipment to Syria, all passing through Iranian and Iraqi airspace.

Their destination was an airfield south of Latakia, Syria, which could become the most significant new Russian military foothold in the Middle East in decades, US officials said.

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The Obama administration initially hoped it had hampered the Russian effort to move military equipment and personnel into Syria when Bulgaria, a NATO member, said it would close its airspace to the flights.

But Russia quickly began channeling its flights over Iraq and Iran, which Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said on Sunday would continue despite US objections.

“There were military supplies, they are ongoing, and they will continue,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies. “They are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry.”

Moscow’s military buildup in Syria, where the Kremlin has been supporting President Bashar Assad in a 4½-year civil war, adds a new friction point in its relations with the United States.

Russia, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, along with Syrian rebel groups, have long been negotiating possible terms for sidelining Assad. Russia recently floated a new proposal under which Assad might give up power but be allowed to stay on as an interim leader.

Analysts say President Vladimir Putin may be increasing Russia’s military presence to either help Assad stay in power or give Moscow more say on the terms under which he is forced out.

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Russia’s military buildup lays bare another major policy challenge for the United States: how to encourage Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, who came to power with the blessing of the United States, to block the Russian flights.

US diplomats raised the issue with the Iraqi government on Sept. 5, hoping that the Iraqis would follow Bulgaria’s example and declare their airspace off limits to the Russian transport planes.

The Iraqis responded that they would look into the matter, said a US official who declined to be identified because he was talking about diplomatic communications. But more than a week later, the Iraqis had yet to take action.

Two years ago, US officials confronted Nouri al-Maliki, Abadi’s predecessor, when Iraq allowed Iran to fly arms, ammunition, and other equipment to Syria through its airspace. In March 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Baghdad that he had a “spirited” discussion with Maliki on the issue.

Compounding Abadi’s challenge are his efforts to maintain good relations with the United States, Iran, and Russia. While about 3,500 US advisers have been sent to help the Iraqis combat the Islamic State, Iraq also has received military support for that fight from Iran, which like Russia is backing Assad. Iraq also is buying weapons from Moscow, which Abadi visited in May.

With few aircraft, Iraq’s ability to defend its airspace is extremely limited. But it could tell the Russians that they do not have the clearance to fly through Iraqi airspace and ask for US help in detecting and discouraging Russian flights.

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“Since Maliki relinquished the premiership, power and authority in Iraq have become increasingly diffused with various players now exercising unilateral power over the use of force,” Ramzy Mardini, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a research group in Washington, said in a telephone interview from Erbil, Iraq.

“Neutrality is the best Washington can hope for in Baghdad,” Mardini added. “Iraq is not a dictatorial state like many of the US allies in the Middle East. Iraq is still a fragile state whose leaders are exposed to politics.’’

“In the discourse of Iraqi politics, forcing Abadi to side with the US against Assad is like realigning him with the Sunni axis against the Shia one,” Mardini said.

A Russian Embassy official in Tehran told Russian news agencies on Wednesday that Iran had approved Russia’s use of Iranian airspace to fly to Syria, but the official insisted the cargo was merely humanitarian aid.

The Obama administration’s warnings to the Russians were decidedly stark.

On the same day that the administration approached Iraq and other nations about the Russian flights, Kerry called Lavrov and warned the Kremlin not to vastly expand its military support for the Syrian government.

Kerry said it would fuel the conflict and might even lead to an inadvertent confrontation with the US-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State, the State Department noted in a statement about the call.

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The US warnings do not appear to have swayed Putin, who appears determined to create new facts on the ground in Syria.

According to US intelligence, about 200 Russian marines and six Russian howitzers now guard the air base south of Latakia. More prefabricated buildings have been delivered, increasing the housing capacity to 1,500 people.

Dozens of Russian vehicles have been observed at the base, including about a dozen advanced infantry fighting vehicles.

US intelligence has not detected Russian fighter jets. But some US officials said Russian SU-25 and MiG-31 attack planes might arrive in the next phase of the buildup. They could be sent in crates and assembled in Syria or be flown to the base, officials said.