21st Century Wire
It’s no secret that the governments of the US, UK and France, along with other EU member states, have been involved in training and equipping what used to be known as ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria. We now know that the bulk of the arms that get into opposition areas in Syria have gone to terrorist groups, much of which has been paid for by their wealthy benefactors in the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
What we didn’t know however, was the method of delivery, until now…
Back in April, 21WIRE reported how Trud Newspaper, based in Sofia, Bulgaria, broke the story of a ship called “Marianne Danica” arriving in the biggest port of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah under the flag of Denmark, after it left the port of Burgas on March 28th – loaded with tons of weapons heading for conflict zones. This was part of a trail that led Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva to East Aleppo in December 2016 where she discovered a massive Bulgarian arms cache that had made it into the hands of western and gulf-backed terrorists groups operating in Syria.
This week, Trud released the latest chapter of their investigation which details exactly how Silk Way Airlines (an Azerbaijani state-run company) conducted at least 350 diplomatic charter flights transporting weapons destined for war conflict areas across the world over the last 3 years. The key to this story is that the Azeri firm appears to have exploited a loop-hole in the international aviation and transport regulations by requesting a diplomatic exemption for aircrafts and their cargo, in effect allowing the Azeri airline to carry on-board tens of tons of heavy weapons and ammunition under the color of diplomatic immunity – with much of the cargo heading for known terrorist enclaves in Syria, but also to other conflict zones including Central Asia and Africa.
“Leaked files include correspondence between the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassy of Azerbaijan to Bulgaria, with attached documents for weapons deals and diplomatic clearance for overflight and/or landing in Bulgaria and many other European countries, USA, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, to name a few,” said Gaytandzhieva.
“According to these documents, Silk Way Airlines offered diplomatic flights to private companies and arms manufacturers from the US, Balkans, and Israel, as well as to the militaries of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and the military forces of Germany and Denmark in Afghanistan, and of Sweden in Iraq. Diplomatic flights are exempt of checks, air bills, and taxes, meaning that Silk Way airplanes freely transported hundreds of tons of weapons to different locations around the world without regulation. They made technical landings with stays varying from a few hours to up to a day in intermediary locations without any logical reasons such as needing to refuel the planes.”
Documents implicating Silk Way Airlines were sent to the journalist via an ‘Anonymous’ Twitter account – Anonymous Bulgaria.
Payment and the shipment for weapons orders were made through a number of supposed front companies, and often co-signed by parties from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The international hub of this operation appears to be Azerbaijan. In some cases, because the volume and frequency of the flights has stretched Silk Way Airlines beyond their limits, the Azerbaijan Air Force was drafted in to help shoulder the load.
“On 12th May 2015 an aircraft of Azerbaijan Air Forces carried 7,9 tons of PG-7V and 10 tons of PG-9V to the supposed destination via the route Burgas (Bulgaria)-Incirlik (Turkey)-Burgas-Nasosny (Azerbaijan). ”
It should be noted that Incirlik Air Base in Turkey is a shared US-NATO facility.
From the days of the Vietnam War, we also learned about a covert program known as Air America which became one of the most clandestine operations in CIA history involving gun-running and possible narcotics too.
NOTE: In the past, 21WIRE has reported on how registered CIA chartered aircraft used in Rendition flights were also used to transport narcotics internationally. Certainly, one could also ask the question here – what cargo was on the flights returning from Afghanistan to Europe chartered by Silk Way?
Silk Way Airlines Ilyushin IL-76 (4K-AKZ100) similar to the accident aircraft, seen taxiing at Tallinn Estonia. (Photo by rotate270 via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND)
As it turns out, Silk Way Airlines has a history of work with NATO. On 6 July 2011, a Silk Way Airlines Ilyushin Il-76 cargo aircraft crashed into a hillside short of landing at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, killing all nine people on board. The aircraft was said to have been transporting 18 tonnes (18 long tons; 20 short tons) of “fuel” for the International Security Assistance Force at the NATO base.
On May 18, 2016, a near repeat of the previous disaster happened again when another Silk Way cargo plane crashed while performing a “positioning flight” from Camp Dwyer (Afghanistan) to Mary (Turkmenistan), killing seven of its nine crew. The plane had crashed after taking off from Dwyer airport in Afghanistan. The crew were from Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
According to this latest report, corporate subcontractors include US-based companies Purple Shovel LLC based in Sterling, Virginia, US Department of Defense subcontracting vehicle Culmen International LLC based in Alexandria, Virginia, weapons and defense procurement firm Chemring Military Products based in Perry, Florida.
In total, the US portion of this particular part of the weapons operation over the last 3 years is estimated at $1 billion under a special US government program for “non-US standard weapon supplies.”
The loop-hole in question deals with a strict regulatory clause in the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Dangerous Goods Regulations, whereby air operators transporting “dangerous goods” are forbidden to transport items on civil aircrafts, and may apply to obtain an official exemption for the international transportation of dangerous goods by air. Here we see how partnering governments simply placed the flights under diplomatic cover to avoid any problems moving the cargo. Trud’s Gaytandzhieva explains the work-around being used in order to traffic weapons into conflict zones:
“According to the documents, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry has sent instructions to its embassies in Bulgaria and many other European countries to request diplomatic clearance for Silk Way Airlines flights. The embassies sent diplomatic notes to the Foreign Ministry of the relevant country to request such exemption. The Foreign Ministry sent back a note signed by the local civil aviation authorities giving exemption for the transportation of dangerous goods.”
“The requests for diplomatic clearance included information about the type and quantity of the dangerous goods – heavy weapons and ammunition. However, the responsible authorities of many countries (Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Turkey, Germany, UK, Greece, etc.) have turned a blind eye and allowed diplomatic flights for the transport of tons of weapons, carried out by civil aircrafts for military needs. Under IATA regulations, the transport of military cargo by civil aircrafts is not allowed. To get around this legality, Silk Way Airlines applied for diplomatic exemption through local agencies.”
The Israeli Leg
A number of seemingly unlikely partner countries have turned-up in this investigation. One of those is Israel – a nation who constantly claims to be fighting terrorism despite the fact that numerous reports have implicated Israel in their involvement in aiding and abetting “rebels” like Al Nusra terrorists in Syria. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal also revealed Israeli links to Al Nusra in Syria. This latest report by Trud shows an even more damning side of this dark alliance:
“In 2017, there were 5 flights from Nish (Serbia) via Ovda (Israel) to Nasosny (Azerbaijan). Each flight carried 44 tons of cargo – SPG Howitzer, RM-70/85. The consignor is MSM Martin, Serbia, the consignee: Elbit Systems, Israel, and the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan. All aircrafts landed in Israel and stayed for 2 hours en-route to Azerbaijan.
The same Israeli company Elbit Systems on a flight from Barno (the Czech Republic) via Tel Aviv (Israel) to Bratislava (Slovakia) re-exported armored vehicles (TATRA T-815 VP31, TATRA T-815 VPR9). They were sent by Real Trade, Prague to Elbit Systems. The ultimate consignee, however, was the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan. The aircraft landed in Tel Aviv and then in Bratislava, where the cargo was imported by another company – MSM Martin, Slovakia. It is not clear why the plane flew from Europe to Asia and then back to Europe with the same cargo on-board. Ultimately, it did not reach its final destination – Azerbaijan.”
The other unlikely partner in this weapons trafficking chain is Serbia – a country who many count as a staunch ally of Russia. As Moscow is so heavily invested in the fight against radical Salafi terrorism in Syria and beyond, Serbia’s dubious own role in this daisy chain should raise some concerned eyebrows.
Weapons for the Kurds
The report also details some 300 tons of RPG-s, machine guns and ammunition heading to US-backed Kurdish forces, via Erbil Iraq.
“In March of 2017, over 300 tons of weapons were allegedly sent to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northern Syria. Six diplomatic flights transported 43 tons of grenades on each flight from VMZ Military Plant, Bulgaria, to the Defense Ministry of Iraq. There are no contracts applied, however. On 28 March, 82 tons of cargo (AKM 7,62×39 mm and AG-7) were sent from Otopeni (Romania) to Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan). The consignor was Romtechnica S.A., the consignee – again the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad. No contracts are provided for this flight either.”
Watch this recent report and interview with Dilyana Gaytandzhieva for the UK Column:
Be sure to read Trud’s full and extensive investigative report here.
Patrick Henningsen is an American-born writer and global affairs analyst and founder of independent news and analysis site 21st Century Wire and host of the SUNDAY WIRE weekly radio show broadcast globally over the Alternate Current Radio Network (ACR).
STAY TUNED TO 21WIRE FOR MORE UPDATES ON THIS AND OTHER RELATED STORIES.
READ MORE SYRIA NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire SYRIA Files
Now that the political dust from the handshake of the century between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump has settled, it is time to turn to the material consequences of the most important tangible item to come out of the meeting: the ceasefire in south western Syria.
Most crucially, this ceasefire covers areas in Quneitra Governorate which covers the Golan Heights. Much of Quneitra has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967 and in the last weeks it was from the Israeli occupied portion of the territory that numerous illegal airstrikes have been conducted with Israeli weapons aimed at and in most cases hitting Syrian targets.
While grossly under-reported, Vladimir Putin stated that in addition to speaking with Jordanian officials, Russia also was involved in consultations with Israel prior to ‘shopping’ the ceasefire to Donald Trump. This confirms that the ceasefire, much like the Astana Memorandum which covers other parts of Syria, is essentially a Russian authored document.
Russia is in a unique position in the Syrian conflict in that apart from jihadists, it can speak to all parties involved. Unlike Iran, Syria and Iraq (a Syrian ally), Russia can speak to Israel, unlike the United States, Russia can speak with Syria and Iran, unlike Turkey, Russia can speak to the Kurds and unlike Syria and Hezbollah, Russia maintains normal relations with all states in the Persian Gulf and the rest of the increasingly irrelevant Arab League.
This gives Russia a unique advantage in the conflict as a power capable of brokering meaningful deals.
There is every chance that Russia told Israel to cease its acts of aggression against Syria in the Golan Heights and that it would be in Israel’s interest not to undermine a ceasefire which is to be police by the United States, Israel’s most important ally and chief benefactor.
There is also every chance that having heard this from Russia, Israel would continue to act unilaterally in Syria as they have in the past. It’s no secret that Israel not only disregards the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries it does not like as it is true that Israel often acts against the wishes and better judgement of its allies and for lack of a better world, international acquaintances.
However, the fact remains that Israeli strikes on Syria have ceased after unremitting assaults over approximately a two week period. Israeli aggression has ceased at precisely the time during which Russia would have been speaking to Tel Aviv about the ceasefire. This gives one necessarily cautious hope.
Whether this lasts is anyone’s guess but this will be the true sign of whether the ceasefire is effective because this is the ceasefire’s duel purpose.
Whether any of the de-escalation zones in Syria established though May’s Astana Memorandum have been materially effective is up for debate. However, since the signing of the Astana Memorandum the Syrian Arab Army has been making remarkable gains on many fronts against various terrorist groups. Turkey meanwhile in that same period has shifted its political allegiance to Russia in many important respects. Erdogan as much as admitted this when meeting with Putin at the G20. This has happened just as sure as the US has alienated Turkey, perhaps past a point of no return over its support for Kudish insurgents.
Israel, Turkey and the US still are not by any means chasing the same ultimate goals as Russia. Russia’s goals are supportive of Syrian sovereignty and are comparatively limited in terms of wanting anything out of Syria when all is said and done.
Turkey has not ceased its support of jihadists since the Astana Memorandum came into effect although its goals are certainly shifting from backing jihadists to containing Kurds.
The United States likewise is still operating under many of the same policies as in the Obama years, Putin said this directly, but nevertheless Trump’s flexibility vis-a-vis that of Obama gave Putin a cautious measure of hope, he said this directly also.
As for Israel, if Russia is able to force Israel to stand down rather than bomb a region which will soon be patrolled by Russian, American and Jordanian personnel, it meas that however incomplete any deal with countries like the US or Turkey might be, Russia will have secured a real achievement in the interests of peace and sovereignty for the Syrian Arab Republic.
If this comes to fruition, it will be a tremendous material/military achievement for Russia in addition to the geo-political victory it already is.