How Syria’s flag carrier plans to remain airborne

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ABOUT A DECADE ago Syrian Arab Airlines (also known as SyrianAir), the state-owned flag carrier of Syria, was planning an order for 50 shiny new Airbus jetliners. They never arrived. Today it operates five elderly ones. The country’s ability to expand its civilian fleet with Western aircraft stumbled when President Bashar al-Assad took the reins as dictator from his father in 2000. Then it disintegrated 13 years later, when civil war swept across Syria and Mr Assad shocked the world with his indiscriminate military tactics, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians. With a helping hand from Russia, his brutal methods have succeeded. His troops now control about 85% of Syrian territory. And SyrianAir is once again shopping for new planes—albeit, this time, in Moscow.

The flag carrier’s demise from a once-proud airline to a pariah banned from Western skies has been the stated policy goal of successive American administrations. Leaked cables written by American diplomats in 2008 identified SyrianAir as “the regime asset most vulnerable to unilateral US sanctions, and where the effect of sanctions is most obvious to the Syrian public”. The flag carrier is blocked from buying aircraft, spare parts and maintenance services from America, the EU and from most other countries, even where such restrictions put the safety of flights at risk. Some argue this is counterproductive for the West. In Iran, which is also unable to buy passenger planes, every new air disaster is accompanied by an outpouring of anti-American sentiment on the streets. No one blames the mullahs. 

Iranian carriers have experienced a longer period of American sanctions than Syrian ones and so have developed canny ways to find jets on the black market. Their procurement channels are convoluted and expensive. They mostly involve planes that no Western airline wants anyway. But they do keep the country flying. SyrianAir experimented with that approach last year when it sourced a 17-year-old A340, hiding the deal behind a mountain of paperwork and middlemen in Kazakhstan and Chad. It seems reluctant to repeat the effort. “Our friends have their own ways,” shrugs Talal Abdulkarim, SyrianAir’s chief executive. “The financial laws and the system that is now active in the Syrian government force us to work without such a third party.”

A better solution, he says, might be found in Russia. SyrianAir is talking to Irkut, the Russian aircraft manufacturer, about an order for up to 20 MC-21 single-aisle jets, due to enter service in 2020 and seen as Russia’s answer to the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo. The airline may have found a sympathetic ear at Irkut, a subsidiary of state-owned United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), whose defence-related activities were sanctioned after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Its subsidiaries, which also include Tupolev, Ilyushin and Sukhoi, have never had much luck selling planes to customers outside the former Soviet Union. Fearful that sanctions will eventually seep into their civil-aviation activities, UAC now aspires to build passenger jets wholly independent of Western supply chains. Irkut wants to replace the MC-21’s American-made Pratt & Whitney engines with Russian alternatives. The schism will be music to the ears of Mr Abdulkarim, even if he wishes he could simply knock on Airbus’s door again.

America’s options for disrupting Russian aircraft sales to Syria are hazy. President Donald Trump relished tearing up his predecessor’s deal lifting sanctions on Iran, scuppering hundreds of Western plane sales to the country in the process. He is not likely to fret about condemning Syrian travellers to risk their lives in ageing planes either. But blocking transactions that circumvent the West is trickier than clamping down directly on Airbus and Boeing. Financial pressure would need to be applied to Irkut, risking a confrontation with a strategically important arm of the Russian state. On current form, Mr Trump taking such a tough line with President Vladimir Putin looks like pie in the sky.

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