New flight-tracking data suggests that Russia is sending military equipment to Syria over the Caspian Sea, taking a lengthy detour to bypass the entire Caucasus isthmus. The circuitous route suggests that Moscow has failed to gain overflight permission from either Georgia or Azerbaijan in its new top foreign policy priority, the intervention in Syria.
The new data was reported by the blog The Aviationist citing the open-source flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. It suggests that Russia sent six Su-34 bomber aircraft to Syria via a route southward to the North Caucasus, veering to the east just north of Grozny and crossing into the airspace over the Caspian Sea north of Makhachkala. It then crosses the Caspian taking a route roughly parallel to the coastline of Azerbaijan, about 50 miles away. It then enters Iranian airspace roughly 50 miles south of the Azerbaijani border, the continues through Iraq before reaching Syria.
The United States had been trying to get countries in between Russia and Syria to block their airspace to Russian military flights, and succeeded in the case of Bulgaria, while Greece confirmed that they had gotten a similar request. If the U.S. has made any such requests to the Caucasus countries it hasn't been announced. Turkey, a firm opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- whom the Russian intervention seeks to prop up -- doesn't allow the flights of its own accord.
The politics of Russian military flights in the Caucasus are more complicated than they might appear at first glance. Georgia, whose enemy number one is Russia, nevertheless has allowed Russian planes supplying the military base in Gyumri, Armenia, to use Georgian airspace. The details of those flights are not public, but in 2010 -- two years after a war with Russia -- Georgia was allowing Russian overflights to Gyumri, a U.S. diplomatic cable showed. In 2011 Georgia annulled the agreement providing for the flights, but there have been reports that the flights have resumed. (The Georgian government's answers to EurasiaNet queries about Russian overflights earlier this month were distinctly evasive.)
Azerbaijan's policies, too, have defied stereotype. Armenian sources claimed, though Baku never confirmed, that when Georgia cut off its airspace, Russia was able to send flights to Gyumri via Azerbaijani airspace. It did so out of deference to Moscow, but now Baku has to balance its two powerful neighbors, Russia and Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu visited Baku earlier this month en route to Russia to meet with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov to discuss Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strongly opposed Russia's military buildup in Syria, complaining that "Some countries have still been sending aircrafts... Two million people have not come to Russia, but they have come to Turkey. We have spent about 6.5 billion dollars for [refugee crisis] until now," he said. It seems likely that Sinirlioglu, on his Baku stopover, tried to convince his Azerbaijani allies not to cooperate with Russia's intervention.
So that leaves the Caspian. The airspace rules over the sea are unclear, a consequence of the still-disputed status of the sea's surface and seabed. It is in that legal limbo that Russia has apparently found its only clear passage to Syria.