Dec. 6: This post has been updated to reflect that none of the four scheduled flights from Syria to Russia landed as scheduled.
Iraq has shut its airspace to four Syrian flights scheduled to pick up attack helicopters that had been repaired in Russia, the spokesman to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said Tuesday. Syria has failed several times since June to retrieve the refurbished helicopters from Russia, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad appears to be growing more desperate as fighting intensifies.
Iraq's denial of the flights appears to be a diplomatic breakthrough for the U.S. Although Baghdad has said it won't allow arms shipments to Syria and has recently begun to inspect some planes flying from Iran, White House and State Department officials have been pressuring Iraq to act much more aggressively to choke off military aid.
Two U.S. diplomatic officials who are closely monitoring Iraq-Syria relations expressed relief when told that Baghdad said it had denied Syria's overflight request for the helicopters.
But one of the officials emphasized caution, noting that flights continue over Iraqi airspace from Iran to Syria. Iraq has maintained that the flights carry humanitarian goods but the United States suspects they contain matériel. "The abuse of Iraq's airspace continues to be a concern," the official said. "We urge Iraq either to require flights enroute to Syria over its territory to land for inspection or deny overflight requests for these aircraft."
ProPublica reported on the Syrian fly-over requests last week, noting that the cargo plane expected to pick up the helicopters did not land or take off at the scheduled times at a military airfield near Moscow. The reason was unknown at the time.
Ali al-Mousawi, the prime minister's media adviser, told ProPublica on Tuesday that Syria's requests had been denied by the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority.
"We will not authorize any overflight until we make sure that it does not contain any military equipment in line with the Iraqi government's policy which firmly rejects allowing transporting any military shipments via our airspace from or to Syria," he wrote in an email.
Syria has tried various ways to retrieve its attack helicopters from Russia.
In June, a cargo ship carrying helicopters from the Russian port of Kaliningrad to Syria was turned back after the ship's insurer withdrew coverage in response to sanctions. A second attempt by sea a month later also failed.
The new plan, according to flight records obtained by ProPublica, was to fly an Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane in late November and early December from Damascus to Ramenskoye Airport outside Moscow, also known as Zhukovsky Airport. The records described the cargo as an "old helicopter after overhaullling" (sic) and identified the model as an Mi-25 — a heavy combat helicopter that has been filmed in online videos appearing to fire at rebels.
The documents included four proposed flights, the last of which was scheduled for Nov. 6. Each of the planned flights was to land at Ramenskoye Airport at 2:00 p.m. local time and departing three hours later. None of the four flights arrived, according to a photographer ProPublica hired to observe air traffic at Ramenskoye.
Some of the flight records were posted by hackers associated with the online collective Anonymous. Many of those documents, as well as others, were obtained separately by ProPublica, which reported last week that Syria appears to have flown 240 tons of bank notes from Moscow this summer.
One of the U.S. diplomatic officials said Iraq's decision to block the flights — and to acknowledge doing so publicly — risks angering Moscow. Failure to deliver the helicopters, this official said, could mean a delay in payment for the Russians. Russia has long been Syria's main supplier of arms.
Officials at the Russian Foreign Ministry and its lead arms exporter Rosoboronexport did not return phone calls from ProPublica. The 150 Aircraft Repair Plant, which is listed as the charterer of the flights, declined to answer questions.
Russia's Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev told reporters last week that Russia was obliged to fulfill its existing contracts even in the teeth of international pressure.
Until last year, Iraqi airspace had been largely controlled by the U.S. Air Force. But American officials have gradually turned over control to the Iraqis and now have little involvement in day-to-day operations, according to U.S. aviation advisers working with the Iraqis.
The New York Times reported Sunday on the struggle of American officials to stop arms shipments from Iran. According to the Times, Iraq's foreign minister promised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September that Iraq would inspect the flights from Iran. But since then, the newspaper said, it has only inspected two planes, including one that was returning from Syria.
President Obama, speaking yesterday at the National War College, said, "We will continue to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people — engaging with the opposition, providing them with humanitarian aid and working for a transition to a Syria that's free of the Assad regime."