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in Air Transport / Features

Syrian soldiering on

Posted 12 March 2019 · Add Comment

Syrian Arab Airlines chief executive, Talal Abdulkarim, talks to Martin Rivers about the flag-carrier’s intolerable challenges, and how Russia could help reverse its fortunes.

Syrian Arab Airlines (SyrianAir) provoked a curious mixture of applause and raised eyebrows at the annual meeting of the Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO) in Cairo in November, when chief executive, Talal Abdulkarim, urged the industry group to hold its next get-together in Damascus.
The Syrian capital would not have been the first venue to spring to mind when the AACO began making plans for its 2019 meeting. In all honesty, it was probably dead last.
Syria has been torn apart by eight years of brutal civil war that began with an Arab Spring uprising but quickly morphed into a multi-faceted battle between regional governments, world powers and a spectrum of rebel groups – most notorious among them the fanatical Islamists of Daesh, who at one point controlled roughly half the country.
With estimates for the war’s death toll running as high as half-a-million, the violence has been characterised by the very worst human rights abuses on all sides. Troops loyal to Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, are among those accused of committing atrocities against civilians.
In this climate it was virtually impossible for the AACO to accept SyrianAir’s invitation, not least because of western sanctions prohibiting companies from developing business ties in the country. Kuwait was later announced as the 2019 host.
But Abdulkarim’s impassioned speech will not be forgotten quickly by AACO delegates.
His invitation underscored the Syrian Government’s firm belief that the worst of the troubles are now behind them. The northern city of Idlib – held by a group with suspected ties to Al Qaeda – is the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country. Daesh has lost almost all of its territory thanks to a two-pronged assault by Syrian and Kurdish forces, resulting in a sharp fall in mass-casualty terror attacks.
Though the AACO does not yet feel ready to hold its flagship event in Damascus, the capital is seeing an increase in international conferences and diplomatic visits.
“This is not a marketing campaign for Syria,” Abdulkarim said through a translator. “The security situation in Damascus is safe. The only part where tension is present is towards the north [of Syria], and as a result of the Turkish presence there.”
Estimating that the government has regained control of 90% of the country, he said efforts by “takfiri forces” to “destroy Syrian society” have failed unequivocally.
“And with absolute confidence I can say that Syrian airspace is now considered the safest in the world, due to the tight security control.”
Unfortunately for Abdulkarim, even a complete cessation of hostilities would not be enough to end SyrianAir’s isolation on the international stage. The flag-carrier has had its activities impeded by US sanctions for almost two decades – a consequence of the poor bilateral relationship between Damascus and Washington.
The release of confidential US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks in 2010 shed much light on America’s policy towards the airline.
One diplomat wrote that America considers SyrianAir to be “the regime asset most vulnerable to unilateral US sanctions, and where the effect of sanctions is most obvious to the Syrian public”. Another spoke about US “efforts to pressure the SARG [the Syrian Arab Republic Government] through withholding safety-related licenses” for its flag-carrier.
Western sanctions against Syria’s civil aviation sector have blocked the airline from buying new aircraft, while hindering its ability to keep existing ones airworthy. As in Iran, this approach has the unpalatable consequence of endangering the safety of flight for passengers.
That is why Arabian Aerospace opposes sanctions against civilian airlines anywhere on the planet.
Despite the humanitarian impact of its embargo, America tightened restrictions against SyrianAir in 2013, when it accused the airline of transporting military cargo on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The move came one year after the European Union stepped up its own pressure on SyrianAir by banning it from all EU airports.
“The hurdles are securing spare parts, buying new aircraft to expand and renew the fleet, and securing ground equipment for the airports,” Abdulkarim explained.
“In addition to that, there are financial penalties, such as the suspension of the accounts of the organisation and the closure of all overseas bank accounts, as well as the suspension of our international insurance subscription. All of this has resulted in a loss of funds that belong to the organisation.”
The immediate impact of sanctions is starkest when looking at SyrianAir’s depleted fleet.
The flag-carrier today has just seven passenger aircraft on its books – six A320s purchased new from Airbus in the late 1990s, and one 18-year-old A340 that was sourced in 2017 with the help of brokers operating in the black market.
Two of the A320s are currently held in storage, Abdulkarim said, blaming an Israeli air strike on Damascus Airport three or four years ago.
In 2010, SyrianAir also managed to obtain a pair of almost new ATR 72-500 turboprops. But both aircraft are now held in storage, presumably due to the difficulty of sourcing spare parts for maintenance.
Successive attempts to sign a renewal contract with Airbus – reportedly for up to 50 aircraft – were blocked by Washington around the same time.
The challenges only heighten Abdulkarim’s sense of pride about his company’s safety record.
“Since its establishment in 1947 until now… Syrian Arab Airlines has never had any accidents related to technical errors,” he beamed.
“Good training, preparing our technicians prior to 2011, having lots of spare parts available, [conducting] daily safety inspections for the aircraft and regular scheduled maintenance – this is how the organisation was able to keep the Airbuses flying.”
Asked about SyrianAir’s current route network, he admitted that the fleet is “not big enough to cover all of the requirements of air travel in Syria”.
Fifteen destinations are served by its five functioning aircraft, including Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Amman, Baghdad, Bahrain, Cairo, Doha, Dubai, Khartoum, Kuwait, Moscow, Najaf and Sharjah. That compares with a 30-point network before the airline was banned from Europe.
Flight frequencies are low, but the chief executive insisted there are no “hurdles, problems or restrictions” bearing down on the scheduled network.
“Unfortunately, the media portrayed the situation as if the government has lost full control over Syria,” he complained. “In fact, from the beginning of the crisis until the end, Damascus Airport kept running on an unaffected schedule that was never disrupted.”
Abdulkarim also rejected US accusations that his fleet is used for military purposes.
“We don’t have cargo aircraft,” he said. “SyrianAir’s fleet is made of medium-size passenger airliners that have a capacity which does not accommodate more than the baggage of the passengers. The sanctions are unjust, illegal and one-sided.”
Sceptics would point out that three in-service Ilyushin Il-76 freighters have been painted in SyrianAir’s livery, and the type is promoted on the airline’s website as providing “commercial cargo services”.
In 2015, state-run news agency, SANA, identified SyrianAir as the operator of at least some of the Il-76s, stating that they are used “for transporting public institutions’ cargo”.
The same freighters have been tracked by western intelligence agencies flying across Syria and into Iran for presumed military missions – blurring the boundaries of SyrianAir’s support role for its government owner.
However, the official stance is that the Il-76s are operated by the Syrian Air Force and do not fall under the business activities of the flag-carrier.
Other Russian-made aircraft can also occasionally be spotted in SyrianAir’s colours.
The government owns a pair of Tupolev Tu-134s, at least one of which (registration YK-AYB) is used as a diplomatic jet for the head-of-state and other officials. Despite being three-and-a-half decades old, both airframes still appear to be in service: YK-AYB was photographed landing in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, in September.
SyrianAir also previously operated Tu-154s – again dating from the mid-1980s – and the company signed (but did not fulfil) a tentative order for three Tu-204s in 2011, just as the Airbus talks were unravelling.
Exceptionally strong diplomatic and security relations between Damascus and Moscow would seem to make Russian-built aircraft the obvious solution for bypassing western sanctions. Yet officials at both SyrianAir and the country’s civil aviation authority have declined repeated invitations to re-fleet with Russian aircraft.
Safety is believed to be the main stumbling block.
SyrianAir’s virtually unblemished safety record is down not just to the airline’s maintenance staff – who Abdulkarim describes as “globally renowned for being highly skilled” – but also a longstanding bias for western metal. Current-generation Russian alternatives are, in the opinion of most industry experts, less technologically advanced and more prone to accidents.
However, the capabilities gap between western and Russian aircraft manufacturers appears to be narrowing – and SyrianAir stands to be a major beneficiary.
“Our friends in Russia have a new product called the MC-21, which is comparable to and outclasses similar models from Airbus and Boeing,” Abdulkarim said, in reference to Irkut’s new narrow-body design, which is being marketed as a rival to the A320neo and 737 MAX.
If Russian Government claims are to be believed, the MC-21 will offer a 12-15% operating cost advantage over contemporary alternatives. European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) pilots have begun test flights on the type, which is due to enter commercial service in 2020.
Abdulkarim freely admits that his preference would be placing direct orders with Airbus. “It makes sense to avoid the extra cost of re-training the team to work on a new model,” he explained. “But the main priority is to continue operating and, in order to do that, I need to find alternatives in case the Europeans decide to continue with the sanctions.”
SyrianAir is, therefore, talking to Irkut about an order for “at least 15 to 20 aircraft”, with deliveries expected between 2022 and 2025. That would return the fleet to its original size in the early 2000s, when Boeing 727s and 747SPs were also operated by the airline.
Crucially, Irkut is working to replace the MC-21’s US-made Pratt & Whitney PW1000G engines with locally produced Aviadvigatel PD-14 turbofans.
The switch reflects Moscow’s growing desire to untangle its domestic industries from western supply chains – a dependency that leaves strategic parts of the Russian economy exposed to sanctions. Though it will be some time before MC-21 production lines are fully autonomous, Abdulkarim believes the threshold needed to de-fang sanctions has already been passed.
“The model is 80% Russian,” he noted. “And we have words from the company’s management that they were able to get approval from the board members to begin selling the product.”
Asked for its perspective on a possible deal between Irkut and SyrianAir, the US Treasury fired a warning shot to Russia: “Anyone that provides material support to, or knowingly engages in significant transactions with, SyrianAir may themselves be sanctioned by the United States.”
Even putting aside the threat of sanctions, Syria faces immense challenges on the path to normalisation.
Years of conflict have left many people, particularly westerners, unable to associate the country with anything other than mindless bloodletting.
But, just as Beirut rehabilitated its image after Lebanon’s long and brutal civil war, Damascus will, inevitably, one day be seen as just another capital city. Visiting friends and relatives (VFR) traffic will almost certainly be the driving force behind this recovery, fostering links with the outside world long before tourists and business travellers return.
Abdulkarim recalled how dozens of foreign airlines flew to Syria before the war, including major European carriers like Air France and Alitalia. The UAE alone had 55 weekly flights to the country.
Today, in sharp contrast, Syrian skies are dominated by just the flag-carrier and Cham Wings, a privately owned domestic rival. The only foreign airlines serving the country are Iranian and Iraqi.
That represents a tiny fraction of the air transport network that Syria’s 19 million citizens will need if they are to begin re-building their homeland. No matter how reluctant western powers may be to engage with President Assad, commercial flying in the country is destined to grow exponentially from its current, depressed level.
“There is total security and stability,” Abdulkarim concluded. “There is no reason for airlines to keep their operations suspended at Damascus Airport.”
• Interview translated by Mohammed Emad.

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