Is Russia Running a Secret Supply Route to Arm Syria’s Assad?
On Nov. 27, a clip appeared on YouTube of a Russian-made Syrian military helicopter apparently being hit by Syrian rebels using a surface-to-air missile. The footage of the gunship, smoking as it turns and flies away, suddenly made the most effective killing machines in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military look very vulnerable, as the brutal war between the Syrian government and anti-Assad rebels continues. Luckily for Assad, help appears to be on the way.
One day before the clip appeared, hackers from the group Anonymous leaked what they claim is a cache of documents stolen from the Syrian Foreign Ministry. As first reported by the non-profit investigative news organization, ProPublica, one set appears to detail shipments from Moscow to Damascus of 240 tons of newly printed Syrian money, which the Russian government has publicly acknowledged printing for the Assad regime. Another document looks to be a flight plan for four shipments of refurbished helicopters, also going from Moscow to Syria. The shipments, whose cargo the document lists in English as “old copter after overhauling,” include one delivery on Nov. 21, a second one on Nov. 28, and two more planned for the first week of December. According to the document, the payment for these shipments was made “in cash,” and their circuitous route through the skies above Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan would circumvent the airspace of all the countries that have imposed a weapons embargo on Syria.
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“It’s getting to Syria by the back door,” says Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which operates an air-trafficking surveillance project on behalf of the European Union. Griffiths, who says the leaked flight plan appears to be genuine, sees it as the latest step in Russia’s effort to repair and then deliver Assad’s fixed-up helicopters by any means necessary. This effort has already come up against some major hurdles, with the U.S., the E.U. and Turkey making extensive efforts to stop such deliveries from crossing their airspace or territorial waters.