Journalism in the Public Interest

To Retrieve Attack Helicopters from Russia, Syria Asks Iraq for Help, Documents Show

Documents show that Syria asked Iraqi
authorities to grant air access to fly in refurbished attack helicopters from
Russia, putting a spotlight on Iraq’s role in the nearly two-year conflict.

Syrian military helicopters take part in a live ammunitions exercise in an undisclosed location. (SANA, via Agence France-Presse, Getty Images)

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.

Two more flights are scheduled for Dec. 3 and Dec. 6 , according to the records.

The Assad regime has been trying to suppress a popular uprising for almost two years. Tens of thousands of people have reportedly died in the fighting. On Thursday, dispatches described intense clashes on the main road to the Damascus International Airport, and at least one airline was reported to have canceled flights. Most of the Internet in the country was shut down as well.

Russia’s prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, said this week in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro that arms shipments are part of a longstanding contract with the Syrian military to repair equipment for “defense against an external aggression.”

“We must fulfill the obligations connected to our contracts,” Medvedev said, noting that Russia has faced a legal conflict after suspending some arms deliveries to Iran.

Syria has found it increasingly difficult to transport helicopters. In June, a ship carrying three Mi-25 helicopters from Russia to Syria was forced to turn back after the ship’s insurer withdrew coverage in response to sanctions. A month later, a second attempt to deliver the helicopters by sea was aborted.

The newly obtained flight documents show that Syria planned to use its Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plan to pick up helicopters at Ramenskoye Airport, also known as Zhukovsky Airport, near Moscow. The manifest describes the cargo as an “old helicopter after overhaulling [sic].” A second document, sent to the Syrian embassy in Baghdad, identifies the helicopters as Mi-25s.

Officials at Russian Helicopters, which makes the Mi-25, and Ilyushin, which makes the IL-76, said one Mi-25 with its blades removed would fit into an IL-76. Such helicopters have been shipped this way all over the world, they said.

Rick Francona, who was the U.S. air attaché in Damascus in the 1990s, said that using a cargo plane instead of a ship suggested the Assad regime was getting desperate.

“If they’re willing to use an IL-76 to bring one or two helicopters back, that tells me they need these right now,” he said. “Rather than getting it there in 10 days, it gets there in five hours. You can pull it out, reattach the blades and have in the air the next day.”

U.S. officials have expressed particular frustration with Russia over the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011.

“I think we’ve been very clear, both publicly and privately, how we feel about any country, Russia included, supporting the Assad regime in any way,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. “And it doesn’t simply go to the question of military support; it also goes for any kind of economic or political support.”

In June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Russian aid with Syria’s attack helicopters would escalate the civil war “quite dramatically.” But a week later, a Pentagon spokesman declined to answer whether the Defense Department would try to stop future helicopter shipments.

The records obtained by ProPublica list the Russian 150 Aircraft Repair Plant as the charterer of the flights to pick up the helicopters. The documents show the firm was operating under a contract dated Nov. 27, 2005. The address listed for the charterer is in Kaliningrad, a Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania that contains large Russian military installations.  

As with the currency shipments, the flight records show the Syrian cargo plane would take a circuitous route back from Moscow, flying over Azerbaijan and Iran before crossing Iraq.

Iraqi airspace has largely been controlled by the U.S. Air Force since the American-led invasion in 2003. Indeed, the overflight request form used by Syria for the helicopters was created by the U.S. Air Force and still bears the old contact information for the regional air command, which is no longer in charge.

Last year, the United States began transferring air traffic control responsibilities to the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority. The Iraqis assumed control of the last sector, over Baghdad, in October 2011.

Bob is my "real name"

Nov. 29, 2012, 11:38 p.m.

Well, with the biggest embassy in the world located in Baghdad, the burning irony of this situation is pressing deep wrinkles into the fabric of New century. Imagine Russian helicopters flying over the U.S. Embassy on their way to Syria..

Too little too late for this soon to be EX dictator. He should have kept to his studies as an eye doctor.

Mike 1950's

Nov. 30, 2012, 1 p.m.

Too bad the occupy movement can’t seem to rally for a moral cause and protest in front of the UN.

It would seem to me that we have a diplomatic failure with our disengagement and withdrawal from Iraq.

We spent hundreds of billions of dollars removing a murderous tyrant, and now watch as people are slaughtered in Syria.  There is something very wrong with our morality.  This is when the left wins the argument that we only go to war for oil. 

Have we no self-pride or sense of disgust for what Assad is doing?  Have we truly become so numb to moral thinking that it is ok to watch thousands die?  Have we become the Romans in the coliseum shouting and cheering for death and destruction, because that is our entertainment when we are bored from video games?  How can we watch the plight of these down-trodden and wretched souls who have no right to life or happiness, and do nothing?

Some would say it is not our problem.  Let the Middle East solve its own problems.  This—dear gentle readers is why our beloved America is so reviled in some quarters of the world.  We beat our chests about freedom and liberty, yet do little to help when the people really need it.  Where is our Godless morality that scientific researchers are working so hard to discover in human and animal tests?  I am afraid we have lost our path.

Our administration has failed.  This is a diplomatic tragedy.  When I travel to various places in the world I will continue to hear others say America is arrogant and self-interested.  Just as 50,000 people have perished in Mexico due to our extremely self-indulgent use of drugs, we will cry foul about the war in Syria on the internet, and do nothing.

Bob, Kevin and Mike-  Get your facts straight.  The great majority of the deaths have been caused by the “rebels”, for which the U.S., NATO, Jordan, Israel, the Saudis, the GCC, and Al Qaeda fighters from Libya are responsible, and have been slaughtering the minority populations of Christian, Druze, Alawite, etc, who lived in peace with each other before we started all of this.

Whoa there Mr.Ed…I’m not even suggesting and do not understand the “body count” contest as a measure of who is more at fault…
  In this morning’s news, I read that Iraqis aren’t inspecting planes flying into Iraq from Iran on their way to Syria

It just shows once again how totally worthless the war in Iraq was. Not only based on two massive lies, it cost a trillion budget-busting dollars, thousands of lives and shattered soldiers, and did it even get us the Oil it was really about? Nope. Iraq sells its oil to China. But we got a great ally. Nope. Iraq is buddying up to Iran. And now I have no doubt they let Syrian helicopters through.

Jim, you’re assuming that the goal wasn’t go give the Pentagon something to do, twenty years after the end of the Cold War.

Notice that, country after country, we remove dictators (yay) by hiring and arming terrorists who hate us (yay?), so that they turn against us once they’re in power.

Once or twice could be an accident.  But Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and now Syria, well, it’s pretty obvious there’s a plan or our leaders are fundamentally incapable of avoiding specific problems.

Curious….when the Russians fly tons of bank notes around, they don’t seem to lose their people’s money all mysterious-like…

Is that a strictly Republican thing?

Catucci Vivere

Dec. 26, 2012, 11:51 p.m.

Ed- Get you are facts straight too. I am a Syrian citizen and against the Assad’s regime. You don’t know how many people are suffering now. No food, electricity, water, or even shelter because of that tyrant. You are reciting the story the Assad’s regime was trying to populate to the media, that the rebels are killing minorities! Which is totally wrong. This revolution is against himself and his regime and don’t forget that Syria is there for about 6000 years living in harmony not you or Assad will tell us how to live in peace. Viva the revolution.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Syria Documents

The Syria Documents: Inside the Unraveling Assad Regime

A trove of Syrian government documents show how Bashar al-Assad seeks outside aid.

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