Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jan. 3, 2017, 11:12am

Syria’s second largest aircraft carrier, Cham Wings, is the most recent Syrian installment to receive sanctions from the United States. On Friday, December 23, 2016, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added the airliner to its Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN), an index that effectively blocks a particular entity's assets from U.S. persons and interests for acting on behalf of targeted countries. The airliner’s founder, Syrian Issam Shammout, had already received sanctions of his own in May 2015 for his business transactions with controversial Iranian airline Mahan Air, indicating a suspicious likely network between Syrian airliners and the Assad regime that is becoming increasingly evident to international parties.

Cham Wings has been operating under the guise of a lawful and legitimate airline since its founding in late 2007 by Shammout United Trade Company, in a privatization effort by the Syrian regime. It took a mere four years for the airliner to become blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Commerce in August 2011. Nevertheless, the Syrian government proudly designated Cham Wings as a national carrier for the country in 2014. While privately owned, Cham Wings has been long reputed to be a conduit for Bashar al-Assad’s corrupt regime in Syria, and ultimately, the Treasury Department nailed the airliner for “having materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, the Government of Syria and Syrian Arab Airlines”.

The airliner is alleged to have transferred weapons and militia fighters through its regular flights to Tehran, Iran, as well as routes between Damascus and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force’s (IRGC-QF) logistical hub in Abadan, Iran. The Qods Force is the paramilitary wing of the IRGC and was recognized in 2014 by the Treasury Department as a prolific supporter of terrorist organizations throughout multiple countries.  The December 23rd sanctions announcement also called attention to Cham Wings’ assistance in helping the Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) launder money and transport cash that was ultimately used “to pay all parties involved in transactions with the Assad regime”.

Cham Wings is unsurprisingly interconnected with each of Syria’s other airliners and has enabled these entities to “circumvent” their international sanctions. Its continued ties to state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines, also known as Syrianair, are damning as the airliner was put on the SDN list in 2013, and in 2012 received European Union (EU) sanctions for assisting the IRGC-QF. Furthermore, Cham Wings has a working relationship with Iran’s Mahan Air through its founder Shammout, who illegally sold nine passenger aircrafts to the airliner, despite its international sanctions as an enabler of Iran’s continued sponsorship of terrorism. To complete the circle, Samer Al-Dehni, owner of the FlyDamas airline, established to prop up its “mother company” Syrianair, was coincidentally a former commercial director at Cham Wings. FlyDamas is the only other privately owned passenger airline in Syria.

It is not surprising that Cham Wings is “shocked and surprised” by these allegations, sentiments directly conveyed from Cham Wings’ Commercial Director Nizar Suliman himself. He touts the airline as merely a Syrian family business and further defends his company by arguing “Cham Wings [is] trying hard to meet the traveling demands in our market and help Syrians, particularly from the humanitarian perspective to travel abroad”.

Cham Wings currently operates A320-200’s Airbus models and offers flights to Tehran, Istanbul, Kuwait, Beirut, Khartoum, Baghdad, Dubai and Doha, among a few other smaller destinations. Cham Wings proclaims its reponsibility on its website as playing “a vital role in strengthening and supporting the participation of the Syrian people by consolidating several local events; social, cultural and artistry in order to lead society to the utmost way of renewal and development”.

It shall remain to be seen how these sanctions will directly impact the Syrian regime and Iran’s patronage of it, as the two “aviation sectors are closely intertwined”. While certain analysts feel it will indeed “hamper” Iran’s capabilities to provide support, the other Syrian airliners have continued to operate seemingly unphased despite their international sanctions. However, Cham Wings is certainly one of the last airline dominoes to fall as a helpful conduit for the Syrian regime.

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