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Revealed: Russia to Syria Helicopter Pipeline Puts Iraq Under U.S. Microscope

Documents obtained by ProPublica show that Syria asked Iraqi authorities to grant air access for a cargo plane transporting refurbished attack helicopters from Russia.
 
 
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A Russian military helicopter.
Photo Credit: Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

In late October, Syria asked Iraqi authorities to grant air access for a cargo plane transporting refurbished attack helicopters from Russia, according to  flight records obtained by ProPublica. With Turkish and European airspace off limits to Syrian arms shipments, the regime of Bashar al-Assad needs Iraq’s air corridor to get the helicopters home, where the government is struggling to suppress an uprising.

Iraq regained control of its airspace from the U.S. military just a year ago and has been under intense diplomatic pressure from the United States to isolate the Syrian regime. Turkey says it has closed its airspace to Syrian flights, and if Iraq did so, Syria would be virtually cut off from transporting military equipment by plane. European Union sanctions have already constricted arms transport by sea and air.

But it is unclear whether Iraq permitted the fly-overs described in the documents. The Syrian cargo plane scheduled to pick up the helicopters did not land or take off from Moscow at the appointed times this month, suggesting that those flights did not happen.

Some of the flight request  documents have been posted by hackers associated with the online collective Anonymous and formed the basis of a  Time story Thursday. Other documents were obtained separately by ProPublica, which reported Monday that Syria appears to have flown  240 tons of bank notes from Moscow this summer. The authenticity of the documents in either cache could not be independently verified.

But taken together, the documents appear to contain new information. They 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 U.S. officials confirmed to ProPublica.

According to an overflight request form dated Oct. 30, the helicopter the Syrians were going to pick up is an Mi-25, a Russian-made gunship that experts liken to a cross between an Apache and a Black Hawk helicopter because it can fire from the air and transport troops.

“Mi-25s are very important to the Syrian Air Force effort against the rebels,” said Jeffrey White, former chief of the Middle East intelligence division for the Defense Intelligence Agency and now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s a heavily armored military helicopter, which makes it very difficult for the rebels to shoot down.”

Videos have been posted online that appear to show Syrian Mi-25s attacking rebels, and Syria has  reportedly been struggling to maintain the helicopters.

Still, the documents leave many questions unanswered. Crucially, it is not known whether the overflights actually happened.

A U.S. diplomatic official told ProPublica that the United States has been working with the Iraqi government to stop such flights. “We have urged them directly to insist that the inspection of those flights occur or deny overflight rights,” the official said. “We have raised this concern and they have taken a couple steps in the right direction — either denying overflight rights if they believe arms are being shipped to Syria or insisting on an inspection.”

But, State Department and Pentagon officials have not provided information on the particular request made in the documents. Iraqi and Russian officials did not respond to questions.

The first two flights were scheduled for Nov. 21 and Nov. 28, but a photographer hired by ProPublica did not observe the cargo plane at the Moscow airport where it was supposed to land and then take off just three hours later. Nor could the flights be confirmed with international tracking services that have recorded the plane’s movements in the past.

 
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