Russia is literally sending planeloads of cash to help Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad prop up his regime and fund his increasingly desperate struggle against a nearly two-year-old rebellion that has killed over 30,000 people.
According to the New York-based nonprofit corporation for investigative journalism, ProPublica, an examination of flight manifests obtained by the organization and published on its website proves that a Syrian Air Force Ilyushin-76 cargo plane made at least eight round-trip flights between Moscow's Vnukovo Airport and Damascus between July 9 and Sept. 15 last summer – each time hauling home 30 tons of freshly printed Syrian banknotes.
That means that Mr. Assad received about 240 tons of banknotes, which experts calculate would be about 240 million crisp new Syrian pound notes of various denominations. One Syrian pound is currently worth about 1.5 US cents.
The overflight logs published by ProPublica show that the Syrian flights passed over Azerbaijan, Iran, and Iraq, presumably in a bid to avoid Turkish airspace. In October, Turkey – which supports Syria's rebel movement – forced down a Syrian airliner over its territory and accused Moscow of using civilian jets to supply weaponry to Damascus.
Until last year, Syrian banknotes were printed by Austria's official Oesterreichische Banknoten- und Sicherheitsdruck, but the European Union has passed 19 rounds of sanctions against Syria, including a ban on minting currency, since the rebellion began in March 2011. According to reports, Assad this year turned to Russia's Goznak official mint to provide him with a steady cash flow.
ProPublica quoted Ibrahim Saif, a political economist based in Jordan, as saying the quantities of money being provided by Russia are very significant for a country of Syria's size.
"I truly believe it’s not only that they’re exchanging old money for new notes. They are printing money because they need new notes," Mr. Saif is quoted as saying.
"Most of the government revenue that comes from taxes, in terms of other services, it’s almost now dried up," he added.
Yet, "they continue to pay salaries. They have not shown any signs of weakness in fulfilling their domestic obligations. The only way they can do this is to get some sort of cash in the market."
Russian officials have not yet commented on the report, but they have in the past staunchly defended Moscow's long-standing "political and technical cooperation" with Syria, which includes an estimated $5 billion in outstanding arms contracts with Syria.
Former President and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told journalists Monday that Russia makes no apology for keeping up arms supplies to a long-standing partner, because there are no international laws or UN-approved sanctions that would make it illegal.
"Military cooperation [between Russia and Syria] is not something that started today, and that military cooperation has always been conducted completely legally, in fact, in an open manner. We have never delivered anything to the incumbent president’s regime that would not comply with international conventions," the official ITAR-Tass quoted Mr. Medvedev as saying.
Russian experts say the apparent exposure of Moscow's role in providing Assad with the cash he needs to pay his soldiers and fund government operations is unlikely to make any difference to the Kremlin, which holds a fundamentally different view of Syria's struggle than the West.
"Money isn't arms, it's fuel for the economy. You can't run a country without money," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant.
"Even when it comes to much more sensitive subjects, like Russian weapons sales to Syria, Russian leaders will accept no criticism, so why would they worry about accusations that Russia is printing Syrian currency?" he adds.
"Basically, you can take this as another sign that Russia has placed its stakes on Assad in this conflict. The Kremlin has already taken all possible heat from the West over its support for Assad, and most diplomatic bridges have already been burned. So, it's clear that Moscow is hoping Assad can outlast the rebels, and will not abandon him, at least not until the very last moment," Mr. Strokan says.