It’s hard to fly to Damascus these days.
Even if Russia’s military intervention in the country has the ruling Assad regime breathing easier after months of infighting, manpower shortages, and territorial losses, Syria’s government is still one of the most diplomatically isolated in the world.
Syrian Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, is under European Union sanctions that prevent it from flying to most European destinations. The chairman of Cham Wings, one of Syria’s two independent carriers, is under US sanctions as well. FlyDamas, Syria’s only other passenger airline, launched in April but its website is under construction.
Still, these limited commercial air travel options provide Syrians in regime-controlled areas with access to the outside world, allowing the Assad government to maintain some limited sense normalcy amid the country’s violent disintegration.
And it gives Assad and his international supporters continuing cover for aerial resupply of the regime — particularly through an Iranian commercial airline that also flies to a number of European Union countries.
As Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies explained to Business Insider, Iranian-based Mahan Air has operated a number of flights between cities in Iran and Syria.
The flights don’t leave on a set schedule, and the planes sometimes don’t broadcast their actual destination — or any destination at all, as in the case of this October 8th Mahan flight from Baghdad to Damascus that Business Insider observed:
“A few times they have broadcast the Tehran Baghdad route then actually flew on to Damascus,” Ottolenghi told Business Insider.
In another instance, an aircraft broadcasting the code for a Tehran-Damascus flight landed instead in Latakia, a strategic city in the regime-controlled Syrian coast.
Ottolenghi spotted a flight on September 19th flying under a Tehran-to-Damascus flight number that instead landed in Abadan, a city in an Arabic-speaking section of Iran that is also home to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval base:
On September 4th, Ottolenghi documented a Mahan plane that flew from Tehran to Abadan before taking off for Damascus.
At some point, it switched its transponder off, and then reappeared near Latakia, its eventual destination:
This activity is well known: Mahan has been under various forms of US sanctions since 2011 for its involvement in “shipping arms to the Syrian government; ferrying members of Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; and providing transport for the Lebanese militia Hezbollah,” according to the Wall Street Journal. \
It will stay on the US sanctions list even after the implementation of the nuclear deal.
And four years into the Syrian Civil War, Mahan Airlines planes are undertaking odd-houred flights to Syria that don’t follow their broadcast itinerary — a deception that runs counter to accepted international civil aviation practice.
“It’s not that Mahan Air flies to Damascus every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” Ottolenghi says. “It happens on random days and at different hours.”
Neither is there any apparent pattern to the frequency with which the flights occur. In September, Ottolenghi observed a period of increased traffic — followed by a ten-day span in which he didn’t observe any flights.
Mahan has another important connection to Syria, aside from these flights. On May 21st, Issam Shammout, a Syrian businessman and the chairman of Cham Wings, was placed under US sanctions for his role in facilitating the illegal sale of aircraft to Mahan Air.
Shammout had used a Dubai-based front company and an Iraqi-based private airline to help direct the sale of nine passenger aircraft to Mahan, in violation of international sanctions against the airline. Eight of the aircraft are Airbus passenger jets capable of long-haul travel that used to fly with Virgin Atlantic airlines.
On October 8th, Ottolenghi spotted one of the planes procured through that illict transaction flying between Tehran and Damascus, which Business Insider then tracked:
The US considers Mahan to be a criminal operation and with good cause. A state-sponsor of terrorism uses its aircraft to aid one of the most oppressive governments in the world. Mahan itself has benefited from an illicit supply chain that extended into Europe.
The EU, however, takes a different view. The airline isn’t currently under EU sanctions and actually flies to a few EU cities. According to its website, and to Ottolenghi’s research, Mahan Air takes passengers to Athens, Dusseldorf, Munich, and Milan.
In a speech in September, Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, emphasised that European companies and banks that did business with Mahan left themselves open to US secondary sanctions: “We will continue to expose Mahan’s front companies, and to remind governments and private industry in the 24 cities where Mahan continues to fly that they risk exposure to US sanctions,” Szubin said.
The enforcement of secondary US sanctions over European business with Iran has long been a sticking point in trans-Atlantic relations. In 1996, controversy erupted over the the US imposition of sanctions on Iran and Libya, as European countries whose companies were invested in Iran and Libya were concerned about US legal exposure from the recently passed Iran-Libya Sanctions Act.
A brewing trans-Atlantic dispute was only resolved when President Bill Clinton’s administration signed an executive agreement specifically exempting European companies from the law. Several European countries have actually passed laws prohibiting companies from complying with US sanctions, giving an additional layer of protection to US-sanctioned entities that do business in the EU.
One of Assad’s lifelines is relatively free to operate in European markets. And within Syria, the regime still has Syrian Airlines’ Russian-built cargo planes, which have been seen flying between Damascus and Qamishli, a town in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria and the site of an air base that may still be under some degree of Assad regime control.
Here’s one such flight that Business Insider tracked on October 8th:
Then there are the small handful passenger aircraft that Cham Wings and FlyDamas operate, and which fly to a number of Middle Eastern cities, including Amman, Muscat, and Kuwait City.
Interestingly, Cham Wings, which leases its planes from a Ukrainian company called Dart Air, flies in and out of Qamishli as well:
Getting to Damascus by air isn’t straightforward these days. But the Assad regime still has access to the skies — a gateway to the rest of the world and a means of reassuring its remaining public that it can still forge some kind of normal existence for its citizens.
But more importantly, the flights let Assad and Iran manipulate the civil aviation system to allow the Syrian regime to hold out for as long as possible against a determined armed opposition.
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