Is Russia Running a Secret Supply Route to Arm Syria’s Assad?

Documents released by the hacker group Anonymous appear to reveal previously unknown shipments of repaired helicopter gunships from Russia to Syria

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Screen grab from video footage from anti-government source claiming to show a Russian-made attack helicopter taking fire in mid-flight from rebel forces on the ground in Syria. Posted on YouTube on Nov. 27, 2012.

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.

(PHOTOS: Inside Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

“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.

In June, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Russia for shipping attack helicopters to Syria; a week later, after British officials joined her calls for the shipments to stop, the Russian ship that was making the delivery—the Alaed—was forced to turn back after its British insurance company pulled its coverage. The Alaed reportedly made another attempt to fulfill the shipment in July, this time in the company of a flotilla of Russian warships. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Russian counterparts over the pattern of their arm sales to the Syrian regime.

According to the documents leaked by Anonymous, Russia has since begun transporting Syria’s patched-up helicopters by air. TIME emailed copies of the documents to the spokesman of Russia’s state arms dealer, Rosoboronexport, who declined to comment on them. But the company has previously said that it is repairing helicopter gunships for Syria under an old contract, which it says it is legally obligated to carry out regardless of the sanctions imposed by the U.S., E.U. and various Arab states. “None of these events will influence our relationships with our traditional markets in any way,” the head of Rosoboronexport, Anatoly Isaykin, told TIME in June.

And under international law, there is nothing to stop them. Russia and China have used their veto power three times in the U.N. Security Council to block sanctions against Syria over the past two years. Russia’s helicopter deliveries to Syria may be politically sensitive but they are perfectly legal.

According to the hacked documents, the helicopters were picked up from Ramenskoe airport, also known as Zhukovsky, a military facility outside Moscow that houses the fleet of Russia’s secret police, the FSB. That is the same airfield that hosts the biennial Russian arms bazaar, where TIME found and photographed Syrian officials shopping for weapons this summer

(MORE: Russian Realpolitik: Inside the Arms Trade with Syria)

The Syrian Airlines plane that is apparently ferrying the helicopters to Syria is registered under the code YK-ATA and has been on SIPRI’s watch list for two years, Griffiths says, ever since it started flying refurbished helicopter gunships to Syria. During one such shipment in 2010, Griffiths says, the government of Lithuania, an EU member, learned the nature of the plane’s cargo and refused to allow it into Lithuanian airspace. Since then, the E.U. and Turkey have banned all Syrian aircraft from flying over their territory. In October, that led to a diplomatic spat between Ankara and Moscow when Turkish fighter jets forced down a Syrian airliner flying from Moscow to Damascus. Turkish authorities searched the plane for weapons, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they had found munitions and “military tools” inside. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that the plane was carrying radar equipment, not military hardware.

Still, Turkey’s vigilance seems to have forced Russia to cobble together a new route for the helicopter gunships, says Peter Danssaert, an expert at the International Peace Information Service, an Antwerp-based organization that tracks the weapons trade. He also says the flight plan released by Anonymous looks genuine. “It looks like [Syria and Russia] are trying to avoid a repeat of the Turkish situation,” Danssaert says. “It’s a classic example of clandestine arms movement,” says SIPRI’s Griffiths. “The avoidance of more rigorously monitored airspace in favor of Iraq and [Syria’s] regional ally Iran.”

But these shipments seem a lot less clandestine after the leak of the documents, which may create new problems for both Russia and Syria. The U.S. could put pressure on Iraq, for example, to refuse overflight clearance for the Russian shipments, and that would again force Russia to scramble for a new route to Damascus. Given the determination it has shown so far, it is unlikely that Moscow will give up on its helicopter contracts with Syria altogether. So even as the Syrian rebels learn to shoot the Russian-made choppers down, Moscow will likely be there to patch them up again.

with reporting by Mark Thompson / Washington, D.C.

MORE: Military Intervention Still Unlikely After Syria Shoots Down Turkish Jet

49 comments
Yvonmoua
Yvonmoua

Assad have Hezbollah, Hamas,Russia and China. Rebel have Al-qaeda , Taliban, EU and USA. Hahahaha, no ease money.

B_BEPECK
B_BEPECK

The Helicopter MI-8, - a transport facility. This contract absolutely discovered, agreement was concluded long ago, and this fact did not escape. Why are not flaunted facts of the deliveries of the weapon mercenary power, who wage war against government of the Syrias?

reflex2709
reflex2709

Жалко что они с военным ми 17 не столкнулись, гражданские вертолёты бить легко. 

reflex2709
reflex2709

Россия поставляет оружие абсолютно легально не нарушая нормы международного права, по ранее заключённым контрактам исполняет свои обязательства перед Сирией. А  Америка и Катар напротив поставляет  оружие террористам.  Автор статьи не объективен.  Американцы вы не опасаетесь , что когда нибудь на ваших улицах эти "борцы за демократию" будут орать: ALLAH AKBAR убивая невинных граждан ? Россия прошла через это в чечне и в авгане.

IlyaN_Zav
IlyaN_Zav

By the way."Russian-made Syrian military helicopter apparently being hit by Syrian rebels using a surface-to-air missile."But who is producer of missile? And who sold it to terrorists?

SUSUL
SUSUL

How much of this paper lies.West delivers this monkey arms, what will happen when a missile shot down an airliner somewhere in France? Or are they seriously expects that these monkeys have a sense of gratitude and they will call one of the streets in honor of Hillary Clinton?

IlyaN_Zav
IlyaN_Zav

Just look video at 00:05 : helicopter have no holders for rockets. It was civil helicopter.  Not "most effective killing machine".

NJ
NJ

Hey, the Western countries have client nations such as Saudi Arabia that they arm. Russia's client is Syria, so it is a case of pot kettle etc. Both behaviors are wrong and neither is better than the other.

starman
starman

Well I don't relish agreeing with Repubs, who tend to be climate change deniers and take their economic ideas from the 1920s,

but I do think we should avoid the problems created in Egypt.  Who wants another Islamist head of state in this region?

The Russians are helping Assad, who is apparently protecting or trying to protect minorities such as the Druse and

Christian communities.  Remember Iraq and the stupid Bush war, the aftermath of which was the destruction of the Christian community that had been there for nearly 2000 years?  Shameful, wasn't it?  Well we see to be doing the same to the Copts of Egypt now, as the new "pharaoh" plants the Islamic agenda into Egypt's constitution.  Who needs this but Islamists? 

So the Russians are helping Syria?  Good!  Somebody should

JohannSebastianPhilobiblos
JohannSebastianPhilobiblos

The facts are simple: the US is NOT threatened either by Syria, nor was it threatened by Qaddafi, in fact both have been enemies of Wahhabi and Salafist terrorists, who also killed Americans (remember World Trade Center on 9/11?). Yet the Obama-Clinton crowd has been arming the very same people who killed Americans to topple the people that fought them... Why is this VERY Corrupt Administration doing it? These terrorist in Syria are destroying churches, persecuting Christians,  torturing and murdering civilians, war prisoners and are using children to fight!

The Russians in fact are behaving responsibly (in fact they are the only ones who are), backing someone like Assad, who has fought terrorists; is he a "democrat" as we know the term? No, he is not. But neither are the US allies in this stupid and immoral undertaking, like the bloody, genocidal Turks, or the Saudis, who put on public spectacles of executions and mutilations and keep their women almost like animals. Why are not Obama and Clinton attacking them? After all, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi, and had the blessing of a large number of Saudis!...

What business is it of the US to attack countries that simply do NOT threaten us? People wake up, Wahhabi Islam is out to kill and maim; in Syria they want to destroy the Christians together with the Alawites. And in the long run they also want to destroy Israel.

stephengreen732
stephengreen732

Ah the Russians.. Even their 'friendship' can be odd, to say the least. And they don't care about it either.. 

EvgenyKorshutin
EvgenyKorshutin

Вообще-то на кадрах , где террористы поража.ют вертолёт, изображён вертолёт МИ-8  , а это - транспортный вертолёт , так -что его называть машиной -убийцей просто глупо .Этим самым вы вводите людей в заблуждение .

Saracin
Saracin

i do not think it is a military chopper. does not look like one- it looks like a simple MI8, which is commonly used in russia for non military purposes...do the rebels just shoot down anything they see in the sky and shout allah akbar?! after and if they win Syria, they will yell allah akbar killing americans, brits, etc- just exactly  what has been happening in Afganistan. so good luck supporting them.  

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

Should Russia follow the behavior of the US in geopolitics?  If so, they better step up their game., as they lag far behind in international meddling.   Thanks for the propagandistic reportage.  We have missed American pravda since the dissolution of the Soviets. 

Kirill_Russian
Kirill_Russian

Enough to lie, enough. Don't the us and gb supply weapons for Syrian gangs (don't call them free syrain army they are real slaugters) ?I am proud of my country Russia and my president Putin that they work that stop the war. Americans government has personal responsibility for death of women and children in Syria.

IgorEidelman
IgorEidelman

Russian supply arms to Christians, Alawite, Druze, Kurds.America, Qatar and Saudi Arabia supply weapons for the Wahhabis.

nshawki
nshawki

May be the Russians need to learn their lessons the hard way! Afghanistan, remember what happened there? 

Very soon, the rebels will turn their attentions to the Russian bases in Tartous, Syria. Right now, they ( Russians) would be considered occupiers in Syria.

antonmarq
antonmarq

Another Dahhh moment in the news. Syria, like everywhere is on the planet, are playgrounds for the greedy. Better to ask are the power players in America, Russia, and now China using these developing states for their pleasures, where the winners gets the resources, while the people get the shaft? You bet. By the way, I do not consider the U.S. giving these people anything, but I do consider that the greedy and special interest are. It's their way to control the flows of moneys to feed their thirst for power.

akpat
akpat

I wonder if the Russians had their own 'Bengazi' problem would their elected representatives create a debacle giving away classified information about the KGB or would they be quite about it. ?:)

Cowboy
Cowboy

I doubt we are supplying the Syrian rebels with much in the way of military hardware but I wish we would. Assad is a butcher and those that support him in even the slightest way deserve what they will eventually will get. To all those who love to hate America and find fault with everything it does, please find a home country more aligned with your beliefs. You are not needed here nor are you wanted. You are a disheartening plague that provides nothing positive just bitter recriminations, anger and hatred.

falcon269
falcon269

Of course Russia is arming Assad. Is the USA arming the opposition? Extremely likely.

ShanePrice
ShanePrice

Why not? We armed Afghanistan against them...

frankwall1965
frankwall1965

If the US started clandestinely shipping large amounts of Stinger surface to air missiles to the rebels, Syrian demand for new helicopters may quickly outstrip Russian supply.

JohannSebastianPhilobiblos
JohannSebastianPhilobiblos

@IlyaN_Zav The answer is likely to be that the missile is of US or French manufacture and it was sold/sent via Turkey. The sad thing is, we can see it coming, another such missile will hit a western airliner a year from now, then the Obama-Clinton crowd will be earnestly condemning the terrorists — forgetting that they armed them. This appears to be what happened in Benghazi on September 11, when the US ambassador was murdered by people **armed** by the US and its friends...

EvgenyKorshutin
EvgenyKorshutin

извиняюсь...) поражают вертолёт .

robwlholmes
robwlholmes

Lets not forget your country had a nice arrangement with Hitler before he turned on you.

markb3699
markb3699

mply @Kirill_Russian Talking about drinking the Koolaid. I'm not anti Russia, but Putin is a dictator who represses freedom of the press and free speech. And it is simply not credible to compare Russia to the U.S. when it comes to promoting or working against peace.

Victor_Chew
Victor_Chew

@nshawki seriously? Tell me more about Russian occupation in Syria?

According to your logic US occupies Germany, Japan and half of the world where it has mlt bases. 

PS
PS

@Cowboy  Your country is providing some much coffins, that should register a trade mark. I propose MCoffin. Should work fine in at least 5 countries in the region. One day I hope it will start it's operations in US. Then we'll see what you say.

ShanePrice
ShanePrice

I mean if the US did it with Afghanistan against them it's not too far fetched for them to return the favor....

whisky87proof
whisky87proof

@frankwall1965 I don't think it is in the USes long term interest to go about handing man-portable SAM's to camel jockeys like candy anymore.

IlyaN_Zav
IlyaN_Zav

@JohannSebastianPhilobiblos @IlyaN_Zav    Yes, it's true. A lot of questions to Russia about democracy. Ok. But it is relationship between the same civilizations. Conversation about high-level problems.But muslim fanatics not support basic western moral values even. For example: very good to kill or no metter to die- it is way to Paradise. It is silly game for US: game of friendship with fanatics.

Backfire
Backfire

In your wild Mujahedin knocking any aircraft, shouting Allah Akbar preferable President secular country? You get to have grown tired of the war in Afghanistan? But Alkaid created USA versus USSR.

Backfire
Backfire

I am afraid of what you write. In fact it is not so. No censorship in Russia. For example, we are reading "Time". Logical? Or do you think that there are only agents of the KGB? ))) Why Putin is a dictator? We have chosen. This is a fact recognized by your Government. Third term? Franklin Roosevelt was president of the United States 4 times! He is a dictator? In Russia, people think that democracy is respected when another point of view, but not to impose their own. Do you not think so?

karinah1917
karinah1917

@justinhoop

you'd better eat more sandwitches greasy american instead of writing such stupid things! eating suits you better than thinking!Russians have the sense of justice, that americans don't know about.your government leads and supports 4-5 wars around the war (Afganistan, Iraq, Libya, Sirya, and tries to boost the war in Iran), it's youbetter go and drink vodka then! as you are fooled by your government!

Saracin
Saracin

@studiya.ak @whisky87proof @Saracin thanks. what i meant was this version does not look like military- no visible gunship support platforms, no external mounts, no rocket pods, etc. they may be using it for intelligence purposes or something like that, but calling it an attack helicopter is too far fetched and smacks of misinterpretation or just ignorance of the author. i found this link to a russian attack chopper  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mil_Mi-24

JohannSebastianPhilobiblos
JohannSebastianPhilobiblos

@Dachman The Russians appears to have learned their lesson in Afghanistan; we have not learned ours and continue to interfere and cause havoc in places we understand and people we understand less — we don't even know who is a friend or a foe, and often give money and weapons to the latter while we excoriate the former. We invaded Iraq, Afghanistan and were defeated in both (after killing thousands of hapless and innocent people); then in Libya, where we succeeded in letting Muslim extremists win. Now in Syria, and the result will be the same. All the while we have destroyed our economy.

Putin is wise: he has concentrated in building his country's economy, spending a measured amount in defense and allowing us to behave like loser Soviets!

karinah1917
karinah1917

@Dachman you don't know what in Russia is going on. how can you make judgments sitting on the other side of the world, reading stupid propaganda news on your tv and newspapers when you have never been to Russia and haven't seen lives of people ?! your news are not free for 100%, you have no so-called dimocracy, your government call it so, but in fact it's very agressive military pumped up on uncontrollable credits buble, that bothers all the other world. why then us don't threaten China regime, they have "bloody comunism"?! so very business-like rekationships! 

Dachman
Dachman

Forgot what a piece loving bunch you Russians are, do you really want to bring up Afganistan? Putin is a bad guy and he is going to cause great pain to more and more Russians.