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 US efforts to block the shipments and significantly increasing tensions with Washington.

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US diplomats want the Iraqi government to declare its airspace off limits to Russian transport aircraft such as the Ruslan An-124 transporter. Russia is using an air corridor over Iraq and Iran to fly military equipment and personnel to Syria. Picture: REUTERS/DANIEL LECLAIR

US diplomats want the Iraqi government to declare its airspace off limits to Russian transport aircraft such as the Ruslan An-124 transporter. Russia is using an air corridor over Iraq and Iran to fly military equipment and personnel to Syria. Picture: REUTERS/DANIEL LECLAIR

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US officials disclosed on 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.

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Their destination was an airfield south of Latakia, Syria, that could become the most significant new Russian military foothold in the Middle East in decades, US officials said.

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President Barack Obama’s administration hoped it had hampered the Russian effort to move military equipment and personnel into Syria when Bulgaria, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member, said it would close its airspace to the flights. But Russia began channelling flights over Iraq and Iran. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Sunday this would continue despite US objections.

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“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 and to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry.”

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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 US. The actions also lay bare another major policy challenge for the US: how to encourage Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, who came to power with the blessing of the US, to block the Russian flights.

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US diplomats raised the issue with the Iraqi government on September 5, hoping the Iraqis would follow Bulgaria’s example and declare their airspace off limits to Russian aircraft.

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The Iraqis said they would look into the matter, said a US official. More than a week later, the Iraqis had not taken action.

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A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister declined to comment on Sunday.

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Two years ago, US officials confronted Nouri al-Maliki, Mr Abadi’s predecessor, when Iraq allowed Iran to fly arms, ammunition and equipment to Syria through its airspace.

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Compounding Mr Abadi’s challenge are his efforts to maintain good relations with the US, Iran and Russia. While about 3,500 US advisers have been sent to help Iraq combat the Islamic State, Iraq has received military support for that fight from Iran, which, like Russia, is backing Mr Assad. Iraq is also buying weapons from Moscow.

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Iraq’s ability to defend its airspace is extremely limited. But it could tell the Russians they do not have the clearance to fly through Iraqi airspace and ask for US help in detecting and discouraging Russian flights.

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“Since Mr Maliki relinquished the premiership, power and authority in Iraq have become increasingly diffused with various players exercising unilateral power over the use of force,” Ramzy Mardini, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a research group in Washington, said.

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“Neutrality is the best Washington can hope for in Baghdad,” Mr Mardini said.

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“Forcing Abadi to side with the US against Assad is like realigning him with the Sunni axis against the Shia one.”

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A Russian embassy official in Tehran told Russian news agencies that Iran had approved Russia’s use of Iranian airspace to fly to Syria, but the official insisted the cargo was merely humanitarian aid.

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The Obama administration’s warnings to the Russians were decidedly stark.

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On the same day that the administration approached Iraq and other nations about Russian flights, Secretary of State John 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 US-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as Isil, in Syria, the state department said.

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“It appears Mr Assad is worried enough that he’s inviting Russian advisers and equipment in,” Mr Obama said in a meeting with troops at Fort Meade, Maryland, last week. “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 you can’t continue to double-down on a strategy that’s doomed to failure.”

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But those warnings do not appear to have swayed Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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According to US 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 advanced infantry fighting vehicles.

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US intelligence has not detected Russian fighter jets. But some US officials said Russian attack aircraft 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.

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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-Islamic State 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.

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“The Russians have done a masterful job of changing the subject on the eve of Mr Putin’s arrival in New York for the 70th commemoration of the United Nations General Assembly,” said Andrew Weiss, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a former Russia expert for the US National Security Council, the state department and Pentagon.

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“Instead of accepting a brush-off from the White House about Mr Putin’s desire for a meeting with Mr Obama, the Russians are trying to argue that you have to talk to us about Syria,” Mr Weiss said. “I don’t believe western governments are prepared to do much to slow down or block the risky course the Russians are going on.”

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Although the administration’s warnings to the Russians have been made public, US officials have refused to publicly discuss their appeals to the Iraqis and other nations to stop the Russian flights’ path to Syria.

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“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, state department spokesman. “We don’t talk about diplomatic conversations, but we’ve asked friends and partners in the region to ask tough questions of the Russians.”

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Russia has long had a naval base at the 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 neighbouring states.

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“This is the most important Russian power projection in the region in decades,” said Stephen Blank, an expert on the Russian military at the American Foreign Policy Council, “and it will enhance Russia’s influence throughout the Levant”.

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NYTimes.com

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