Is Syria's Assad running short of helicopters and cash?

ProPublica reports that Syria asked Iraq to allow helicopter shipment overflights from Russia, just days after other documents revealed Russia sent Syrian currency to Damascus.

By , Staff writer

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    Syrian Air Force helicopters used by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen at a military base at Taftanaz near the northern province of Idlib November 19. Syria sought permission from Iraq last month to ship attack helicopters being refurbished by Russia through Iraqi airspace, according to a new report, but it is unclear whether the shipments ever occurred.
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According to a new report, Syria sought permission from Iraq last month to ship attack helicopters being refurbished by Russia through Iraqi airspace. But while it is unclear whether the shipments ever occurred – unlike eight shipments of Syrian currency sent from Russia that was revealed earlier this week – the reports, taken together, indicate an increasing level of desperation on the part of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Nonprofit investigative journalist organization ProPublica reports today that according to flight request documents, Syria has made multiple requests of Iraq for the helicopter-shipment overflights, including flights that were scheduled to leave Moscow on Nov. 21 and Nov. 28. ProPublica does not disclose how it obtained the flight request documents and writes that their authenticity could not be verified.

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The organization reports that the two November flights did not appear to take place as scheduled according to a photographer on the scene at the Moscow airport, though it is not clear whether they went through at a different time. ProPublica's documents indicate two more flights are scheduled for Dec. 3 and Dec. 6.

Iraq's permission for the flights to pass through its airspace are critical for Syria, as it would allow shipments of arms from Russia to circumvent Turkey's airspace. Turkey effectively closed its airspace to Syria last month and, along with European Union sanctions, has almost completely cut off the Syrian government's access to foreign arms shipments.

ProPublica adds that the overflight-request documents "show that Baghdad has requested several times to inspect other Syrian flights that were going to pass over Iraq from Iran and Russia, something that US officials confirmed to ProPublica."

If Iraq is indeed helping the US to cut off arms to Syria, the Assad regime could be left with very few avenues to receive the weapons it needs to maintain its military superiority over the rebels.

There are also signs of financial problems. ProPublica reported earlier this week, also using flight requests, that Russia had sent eight planeloads of Syrian currency to Damascus by an equally circuitous route over Iraq. Even if the Russian shipments in ProPublica's documents did get through, Russian experts say that they do not provide a significant boost to the Syrian government.

Andrey Baklitsky of the PIR Center, an independent Moscow think tank, says that there is no sign that modern Russian helicopters are being sent to Syria. "There is no information about any new Russian contracts with Syria, nor any information of a Syrian delegation coming to sign it," Mr. Baklitsky says."Big contracts involving big sums of money usually are not secret and become known, but we have no such information."

"The issue is whether there is anything new" in the documents, Baklitsky says, pointing out that the shipments appear to solely be for refurbished old Russian models. There is no sign either in the shipment documents or on the battlefield of new Russian helicopters being deployed to Syria, he adds.

"Helicopters delivered by Russia in its time were [models] Mi-8, Mi-17, and Mi-24. [A helicopter rebels recently] knocked down in Aleppo was Mi-8, an old model [the] Russian army doesn't have now. If it were a Mi-28 or Ka-52 then we could suppose that there might have been some new deliveries, but as it is, we cannot."

Rick Francona, the US air attaché to Syria in the 1990s, told ProPublica that using a cargo plane instead of a ship to transport the refurbished helicopters suggests the Assad regime is desperate.

“If they’re willing to use an IL-76 [cargo plane] to bring one or two helicopters back, that tells me they need these right now,” he said. “Rather than getting it there in 10 days, it gets there in five hours. You can pull it out, reattach the blades and have in the air the next day.”

And Sazhin Vladimir, a senior researcher at the Institute of Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Science, says that the currency shipments uncovered earlier this week by ProPublica don't really help Syria.

"Syria doesn't need these banknotes now, it needs dollars and euros. It will not help Syria to have more Syrian money," Mr. Vladimir says. He adds that foreign aid to President Assad, both from Russia and from long-time ally Iran, seems to be drying up.

"The key issue for Syria is the economy. It is completely destroyed," Vladimir says. "Iran did help Syria a lot, with arms and money. Over the last six months they sent 10 billion dollars to Assad's regime. But this 'river' has already drained; Iran has its own problems to attend to."

"I do not have concrete data, but I do not think Russia is helping Syria a great deal now. First, if such thing is happening, it will soon become known, and second, any oppositional force that will come to power next will hardly like that."

"Probably Russia would like to help Syria morally, but the problem is that Assad's regime is doomed. It is a question of time when it is going to collapse."

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