A Reuters investigation has revealed a covert airlift using civilian planes to fly private Russian contractors to Syria’s president – an operation the Kremlin insists does not exist
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 planes to ferry military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in his six-year fight against rebels, a Reuters investigation of the logistical network behind Assad’s forces has uncovered.
The Airbus they flew on was just one of dozens of aircraft that once belonged to mainstream European and U.S. aviation companies, then were passed through a web of intermediary companies and offshore firms to Middle Eastern airlines subject to U.S. sanctions – moves that Washington alleges are helping Syria bypass the sanctions.
The flights in and out of Rostov, which no organisation has previously documented, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-Assad fighters to Syria and helping Syrian military intelligence transport weapons and equipment. The flights, which almost always land late at night, don’t appear in any airport or airline timetables, and fly in from either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base.
The operation lays bare the gaps in the U.S. sanctions, which are designed to starve Assad and his allies in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah militia of the men and materiel 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 the Kremlin insists does not exist. Russian officials say Moscow’s presence is limited to air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops.