Russian Condor transport plane. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Nolan/U.S. Department of Defense
WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Russia is using an air corridor over Iraq and Iran to send supplies to Syria, U.S. officials said.
After Bulgaria, a NATO member, announced on Sept. 8 its airspace would be closed to Russian military planes traveling to Syria -- upon request by the United States -- Russia began channeling flights over Iran, a Syrian ally. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Sunday the flights would continue despite objections from the United States.
U.S. officials disclosed Sunday seven massive Condor planes, Russian transport planes, took off from southern Russia to Syria in the past week, passing through Iraqi and Iranian airspace.
"There were military supplies, they are ongoing, and they will continue. They are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry," Lavrov said.
The planes' destination was a growing airbase near Latikia, Syria, which could become a major Russian foothold in the Middle East. U.S. intelligence estimates suggest about 200 Russian soldiers and six howitzers guard the air base, and newly constructed buildings could increase its housing capacity to 1,500.
While no Russian fighter planes have been observed, dozens of Russian vehicles drive around the base. Russia also maintains a naval base at the Syrian port city of Tartus.
Airspace of nearby Georgia and Armenia could be used as well for flights from Russia's only southern airbase in Gyumri, Armenia, to Syria, but Georgian and Armenian aviation officials have said no arrangements for Russian flights have been made.
The United States on Sept. 5 asked to Iraq to close off its airspace to Russian transport planes, but that request has not yet yielded results. Iraq's small air force has limited options in dealing with the defense of its airspace.
"Regardless of what air corridor is being used, we've been clear about our concerns about continued material support to the Assad regime," said State Department spokesman John Kirby "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."