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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 4 December 2020

Syria resumes sanctioned flights from Iran that US says are carrying weapons

Damascus-owned cargo jet fleet paused operations because of Covid-19
A screenshot of the route taken by an Ilyushin Il-76 jet with the registry YK-ATA between Tehran Mehrabad International Airport and Syria's Latakia. Flightradar24, screengrab  
A Syrian-government operated cargo jet fleet that the US says is carrying weapons from Iran has resumed deliveries after a pause caused by the outbreak of Covid-19.
On Monday afternoon Ilyushin IL-76 jet, registered as YK-ATA, flew to Latakia from Tehran Mehrabad International Airport, which is used by Iran's air force, aviation data portal FlightRadar24 said.
The flight was the first in more than a month from Iran by a fleet of cargo jets ostensibly operated by Syria Airlines, the country's civilian flag carrier, the website said.
On March 12, another Ilyushin IL-76 jet, registered as YK-ATB, flew from Tehran to Damascus, the day after YK-ATA flew the same route.
Damascus International Airport announced it was not accepting international commercial traffic 10 days later.
Hours after YK-ATA touched down in Latakia, Syria's Transport Ministry said Syrian Airlines was resuming international cargo flights into and out of the country.
The US sanctioned Syrian Airlines and its fleet of cargo planes in 2013 for allegedly ferrying cargo on behalf of the Iran's elite Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Hezbollah helped to organise the flights, which were taking mortars, small arms, rockets and light anti-aircraft guns to Syria at the time, the US Department of Treasury said.
Rick Francona, a retired US Air Force intelligence officer who closely follows Iranian flights to Syria, said the jets "belong to the Syrian Air Force 585th Transport Squadron of the 29th Air Brigade".
"The Syrians try to maintain the fiction that all of the 29th Brigade's [jets] are civilian airliners," Mr Francona said.
Syria's President Bashar Al Assad and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif meet in Damascus on April 20, 2020. Sana/Handout via Reuters
The jets are mainly used in an air bridge to Qamishli, where the Syrian government has an enclave in the largely Kurdish controlled north-east of the country, he said.
They also take military equipment into Syria to support Republican Guard operations, Mr Francona said.
He believed the YK-ATA flight on Monday "was a resumption of the past IRGC resupply flights".
Unlike Monday's flight to Latakia International Airport, which shares its facilities with Russia's Hmeimim military airbase, past flights by Syria's cargo fleet have normally landed in Damascus.

"It will be interesting to see if Latakia/Hmeimim becomes the newest stopover point for the flights," Mr Francona said.

He said the base was safe from Israeli air strikes.

Israel has carried out strikes on Syrian airports, including Damascus International Airport, in recent years.

State media reported that Syrian air defences intercepted an Israeli attack near the eastern Homs province city of Palmyra on Monday evening and shot down "hostile targets."

On March 31, Syria said it had intercepted an Israeli strike in the country's central Homs province, state news agency Sana reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in Britain said Israel attacked Al Shayrat airbase after a cargo plane flew out.

Monday's flight from Iran comes soon after a similar flight by an Iranian cargo plane.
An Ilyushin IL-76 Pouya Air jet, flew into Latakia on Saturday afternoon, FlightRadar24 data showed.
The US sanctioned Pouya Air in 2014 for working on behalf of the Quds Force to take illicit cargo, including weapons, to Syria.
Iranian Foreign minister Javad Zarif this week visited Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Updated: April 22, 2020 02:02 AM