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Terrorism & Security

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.

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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.

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Europe Editor

Arthur Bright is the Europe Editor at The Christian Science Monitor.  He has worked for the Monitor in various capacities since 2004, including as the Online News Editor and a regular contributor to the Monitor's Terrorism & Security blog.  He is also a licensed Massachusetts attorney.

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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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