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.

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