Sun, Apr 15, 2018 - Page 7 News List

How a secret Russian airlift helps Syria’s al-Assad

Private Russian military contractors are being sent on clandestine flights to Syria, airplane-tracking data show — and a document trail reveals how aircraft from the West end up in the hands of those on US blacklists

By Rinat Sagdiev, Maria Tsvetkova and Olena Vasina  /  Reuters, MOSCOW and KIEV

Illustration: Louise Ting

In a corner of the departures area at Rostov airport in southern Russia, a group of about 130 men, many of them carrying overstuffed military-style rucksacks, lined up at four check-in desks beneath screens that showed no flight number or destination.

When a Reuters reporter asked the men about their destination, one said: “We signed a piece of paper — we’re not allowed to say anything. Any minute the boss will come and we’ll get into trouble.”

“You too,” he warned.

The chartered Airbus A320 waiting on the tarmac for them had just flown in from the Syrian capital, Damascus, disgorging about 30 men with tanned faces into the largely deserted arrivals area. Most were in camouflage gear and khaki desert boots. Some were toting bags from the Damascus airport duty-free.

The men were private Russian military contractors, the latest human cargo in a secretive airlift using civilian airplanes to ferry military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his six-year fight against rebels, a Reuters investigation of the logistical network behind al-Assad’s forces has uncovered.

The Airbus that they flew on was just one of dozens of aircraft that once belonged to mainstream European and US aviation companies, then were passed through a web of intermediary companies and offshore firms to Middle Eastern airlines subject to US sanctions — moves that Washington alleges are helping Syria bypass the sanctions.

The flights in and out of Rostov, which no organization has previously documented, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with US sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-government fighters to Syria and helping Syrian military intelligence transport weapons and equipment.

The flights, which almost always land late at night, do not appear in any airport or airline timetables, and fly in from either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base.

GAPS IN SANCTIONS

The operation lays bare the gaps in the US sanctions, which are designed to starve al-Assad and his allies in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah militia of the men and material that they need to wage their military campaign.

It also provides a glimpse of the methods used to send private Russian military contractors to Syria — a deployment that the Kremlin insists does not exist.

Russian officials say Moscow’s presence is limited to airstrikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops.

Reuters reporters staked out the Rostov airport, logged the unusual flights using publicly available flight-tracking data, searched aircraft ownership registries and conducted dozens of interviews, including a meeting at a fashionable restaurant with a former Soviet marine major on a US government blacklist.

Asked about the flights and the activities of Russian private military contractors in Syria, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin referred Reuters to the Russian Ministry of Defense — which did not reply to the questions. Nor did the Syrian government reply to questions.

In response to detailed Reuters questions, Cham Wings said only that information on where it flies was available on its Web site.

The flights to Rostov are not mentioned on the site, but the journeys do appear in online flight-tracking databases. Reporters traced flights between the Rostov airport and Syria from Jan. 5 last year to March 11 this year. In that time, Cham Wings aircraft made 51 round trips, each time using Airbus A320 jets that can carry up to 180 passengers.

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