Amidst mounting concerns in Washington about Russia’s military presence in war-ravaged Syria, one question persists — if existing air routes for Russian flights to Syria are closed, what will be Moscow’s backup plan? Long a corridor between Russia and fellow Syrian ally Iran, the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia appear an option to some.
It is unclear, however, what exact role US ally Georgia, to Russia's south, and Russian ally Armenia, to Iran's north, play or could play in any such corridor.
So far, government agencies in both Caucasus countries and US diplomats have equivocated on the matter.
On September 11, Georgian aviation officials announced that Russia, its northern neighbor, has not asked to use Georgia’s airspace for Syria-bound flights “in recent days or in the past two months.” Whether it did so before “the past two months” was not specified in the statement to GHN newswire.
In Armenia, with which Russia has just announced plans for a joint air defense union, the foreign ministry deferred questions on Russian military flights to Armenia’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Armenian Civil Aviation Authority Spokesperson Rouben Grdzelian told EurasiaNet.org that “there isn’t any restriction” on Russian military flights “as Russia can freely use Armenian airspace . . .” Russian military flights come into Erebuni, a military airport just outside of the capital, Yerevan, almost every day, he added.
Russia’s sole army base in the South Caucasus is located in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri, not far from the Georgian border. No direct train link exists between Armenia and Russia and Georgia is not known to allow Russian military vehicles to use its territory for transit.
More flights to Armenia could be coming. On September 8, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that Moscow is prepared to sign deals on air bases “with any of the countries with which we have alliance treaties;” a grouping that includes Armenia, its only steady ally in the South Caucasus.
Grdzelian, though, claimed that the Armenian aviation agency had no information about Russian flights to Syria and that “at the moment there isn’t any transit flight via Armenian airports.”
In Georgia, government bodies also sidestepped knowledge of Russian military flights. The Georgian Ministry of Defense told EurasiaNet.org that the subject is “not in their immediate competence.”
For a country that fought a war with Russia in 2008 and still considers Russia its top security threat, this might seem a bit surprising.
A comment from the US Embassy in Tbilisi also did not bring much clarity. “We have encouraged our allies and partners to ask tough questions of Russia’s increased military deployment in Syria,” the embassy said in an emailed response to a question from EurasiaNet.org about reports of the Caucasus as a transit zone for Russia’s Syria-bound flights.
Bulgaria shut its own skies to Russian Syria-bound flights on September 8, after receiving a US request to do so. Neighboring Greece is still undecided.
Asked if the US had also made a request to the Georgian government to deny clearance for such flights, the embassy wrote that “We do not discuss the details of our private diplomatic communication.”
Georgian aviation officials said that granting such clearance is the foreign ministry’s prerogative and stated that the ministry has not issued any such order. The Georgian foreign ministry did not respond to an earlier EurasiaNet.org inquiry in time for publication.
Moscow, for its part, has not named either Georgia or Armenia as among its candidates for a fallback route to Syria. Neighboring Turkey, a NATO member and avowed enemy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is clearly not an option.
A Turkish international relations specialist interviewed by Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency termed the Caspian Sea to Iran and Iraq one "risky" possibility for Russia.
On September 9, a spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Tehran announced that Russia had received Iranian permission for "humanitarian flights" to Syria.
Meanwhile, Russia itself maintains that its support for Syria, where it now has naval and air bases, is nothing out of the ordinary. In a September 11 comment, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that his country had gotten involved in the anti-terrorism fight in Syria “for collective work, and in accordance with international norms.”
Update:The US embassy in Yerevan on September 17 responded to a query from EurasiaNet.org on this topic, but did not address Armenia specifically. It noted that US Secretary of State John Kerry had cautioned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that "enhanced Russian military build-up" in Syria "could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL Coalition operating in Syria." Using a line also employed by the US embassy in Tbilisi, it said that "We encourage our allies and partners to ask tough questions of Russia’s increased military deployments to Syria."
---- Caucasus/Turkey News Editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this post.