Following confirmation that Russian bombers are flying to Syria from Hamadan air base in Iran, reports have again begun to circulate of Russian bombers also using Incirlik air base in Turkey.
Rumours of such a deployment have circulated for several weeks, having been first floated in the days immediately before the Turkish coup attempt.
Russian use of Incirlik would be strongly opposed by the US. There is simply no precedent for the Russian Aerospace Forces using a NATO air base also used by the US to conduct combat missions. The US would obviously not welcome such a precedent. Is such a thing however even of the cards?
Russian use of Incirlik would obviously require the agreement of Turkish President Erdogan and his government. They have been speaking in recent days of joint action by Russia and Turkey against ISIS. It is just conceivable that that might have included an offer to make Incirlik available for use by the Russian Aerospace Forces.
Russian Defence Minister Shoigu meanwhile made certain somewhat mysterious comments during an equally mysterious visit to Azerbaijan that Russia and the US were close to agreeing to some sort of alliance to fight jointly together against militant Jihadis in Syria. He was quoted as saying
“We are now in a very active phase of negotiations with our American colleagues. We are moving step by step closer to a plan – and I’m only talking about Aleppo here – that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so that people can return to their homes in this troubled land.”
It is just possible that what happened is that some sort of discussions were underway between the Turks and the Russians that touched on the possibility of the Russians using Incirlik as part of some sort of joint military campaign with the Turks, but which the Turks and the Russians agreed should also include the US.
The Russians would probably not want to use Incirlik against US opposition if only because, given the extensive US presence there, the security of any Russian operations carried out from the base without US agreement would be in constant danger of being compromised.
The Turks for their part would probably not be willing to make Incirlik available to the Russians against the opposition of the US for fear of being branded a disloyal ally.
The stony reaction of the US to Shoigu’s comments suggests that if any such a proposal was ever made then the US immediately shot it down. Reuters reports U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau as saying in response to Shoigu’s comments
“We have seen the reports and have nothing to announce … We remain in close contact (with Russian officials).”
This clearly is intended to pour cold water on Shoigu’s words, confirming that the only basis upon which the US is prepared to fight alongside the Russians in Syria is the one recently proposed to Putin by US Secretary of State Kerry, which the Russians recently rejected.
Since the Russians are now using Hamadan air base in Iran, the value of Incirlik to their campaign in Syria is open to doubt. SU34s can reach any part of eastern Syria from Hamadan without needing drop tanks or inflight refuelling.
Gaining the use of Incirlik would be for the Russians of tremendous symbolic significance but in operational terms it is doubtful if it matters. Given US opposition it almost certainly will not happen.