© SANA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images A Russian plane in Latakia, Syria, on Saturday. The Syrian government said it was carrying humanitarian aid. 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 American efforts to block the shipments and significantly increasing tensions with Washington.
American 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, American officials said.
The Obama administration initially hoped it had hampered the Russian effort to move military equipment and personnel into Syria when Bulgaria, a NATO member, announced 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 V. Lavrov, said on Sunday would continue despite American objections.
“There were military supplies, they are ongoing, and they will continue,” Mr. 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 al-Assad in a four-and-a-half-year civil war, adds a new friction point in its relations with the United States. The actions also lay 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.
American 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 an American 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.
A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister declined to comment on Sunday, asserting that he had no information about the Russian flights or the United States’ concerns about them.
Two years ago, American officials confronted Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Mr. 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 Mr. Maliki on the issue.
Compounding Mr. Abadi’s challenge are his efforts to maintain good relations with the United States, Iran and Russia. While about 3,500 American 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 Mr. Assad. Iraq also is buying weapons from Moscow, which Mr. 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 American help in detecting and discouraging Russian flights.
“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,” Mr. Mardini added. “Iraq is not a dictatorial state like many of the U.S. 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 U.S. against Assad is like realigning him with the Sunni axis against the Shia one.”
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, Mr. Kerry called Mr. Lavrov and warned the Kremlin not to vastly expand its military support for the Syrian government. Mr. Kerry said it would fuel the conflict and might even lead to an inadvertent confrontation with the American-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Syria, the State Department noted in a statement about the call.
“It appears now that Assad is worried enough that he’s inviting Russian advisers in and Russian equipment in,” President Obama said in a meeting with troops at Fort Meade, Md., last week. “And that won’t change our core strategy, which is to continue to put pressure on ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but we are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can’t continue to double-down on a strategy that’s doomed to failure.”
But those warnings do not appear to have swayed President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who appears determined to create new facts on the ground in Syria.
According to American 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.
American intelligence has not detected Russian fighter jets. But some American 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.
The Russian move could serve multiple purposes, according to analysts. In addition to strengthening Mr. Assad and buttressing the Kremlin’s plan to create a new anti-ISIL coalition that includes Iran and the Syrian government, it positions Russia to have major influence in Syria’s future and draws attention away from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
“The Russians have done a masterful job of changing the subject on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s arrival in New York for the 70th commemoration of the U.N. General Assembly,” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a former Russia expert for the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon.
“Instead of accepting a brushoff from the White House about Putin’s desire for a meeting with Obama, the Russians are trying to argue that you have to talk to us about Syria,” Mr. Weiss added. “I don’t believe Western governments are prepared to do very much to slow down or block the risky course the Russians are going on.”
Although the administration’s warnings to the Russians have been made public, American officials have refused to publicly discuss their appeals to the Iraqis and other nations to stop the Russian flights’ path to Syria.
“Regardless of what air corridor is being used, we’ve been clear about our concerns about continued material support to the Assad regime,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman. “We don’t talk about our diplomatic conversations, but we’ve asked our friends and partners in the region to ask tough questions of the Russians.”
Russia has long had a naval base at the Syrian port city of Tartus. But if the Kremlin continues its military buildup near Latakia and bases Russian warplanes there, it could greatly enhance its ability to project power in Syria and neighboring states.
“This is the most important Russian power projection in the region in decades,” said Stephen J. Blank, an expert on the Russian military at the American Foreign Policy Council, “and it will enhance Russia’s influence throughout the Levant.”