Thursday 10 August 2017

Sanctions Busting: How SyrianAir Acquired Its A340 Passenger Jet Via Iran

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

SyrianAir can look back on a turbulent six years of operations serving a country thorn apart by Civil War. Heavily impacted by the implementation of sanctions against Syria in 2012, preventing the airline from buying new aircraft and forcing it to cease its flights to countries in the European Union, SyrianAir (officially known as Syrian Airlines) has had to drastically scale back its operations. This marked the start of a slow degradation process that would see SyrianAir retiring ever more aircraft as spare parts became increasingly difficult to acquire.

Although some expected the acquisition of several types of Russian-produced aircraft such as the Tu-204 or even the Il-96 to replace SyrianAir's Western fleet of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, no such deliveries occurred. A sharp decrease in the operational availability of its Airbus fleet due to a lack of spare parts and maintenance checks, further exacerbated by a mid-air collision of an A320 with a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) Mi-8/17 in 2012, meant that the airline's aging Tu-134s were now increasingly utilised to replace some of the flights previously carried out by the A320s.

This struggle went on for several years, ultimately leading to the retirement of all but two of SyrianAir's A320s, which currently remain active on some of the airline's routes to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Iraq, Sudan, Iran and Russia. Despite the fact that flights to several of these destinations occur infrequently, it still puts a high burden on a fleet of only two A320s and semi-active Tu-134s. With no replacements from Russia, the United States or Europe in sight, SyrianAir's future was looking increasingly grim.

The situation would only improve in 2016 after the Iranian Mahan Air wet-leased one of its Airbus A300-600R passenger jets to SyrianAir, which quietly entered service with the airline in August 2016, circumventing the sanctions implemented against Syria. The wet-lease of an Airbus A300 was only a temporarily solution to SyrianAir's problems, yet it allowed SyrianAir some much needed breathing space until a suitable replacement aircraft for the airline could be found. The search and subsequent acquisition of an Airbus A340 would involve countries like Iran, Chad and Kazakhstan in a deal that is a perfect example of successful 'Sanctions Busting', to the point that no repercussions have had to be endured by the involved countries as a whole to this date at all.

Before going into detail on the story of the A340, it is insightful to consider the events leading up to the acquisition of the aircraft. As already stated above, SyrianAir leased a single A300 from Mahan Air to relieve the two A320s that remained operational on some of the flights to the airline's remaining destinations. Although a relatively outdated aircraft by today's standards, the A300 is capable of flying longer distances while carrying considerable more passengers than the smaller A320.

The privately owned Mahan Air serves as Iran's second airline behind the flag carrier Iran Air, and operates a large fleet of mainly Airbus passenger jets to destinations in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. However, apart from ferrying passengers to destinations across Asia and Europe, Mahan Air also plays an active role in the Syrian Civil War, transporting Shiite fighters and their equipment from locations in Iran and Iraq to Syria. Mahan Air is also implicated in transporting weapons to Yemen's Houthis before and during the early stages of the Saudi-led intervention in this country.

It thus comes as no surprise that Mahan Air is sanctioned by the U.S. government, which has also put member states of the European Union under pressure to ban Mahan Air from operating to these countries, a ban which has yet to take place. Despite effectively acting as Iran's Revolutionary Guard's long-arm in the Middle East and possibly farther abroad, the airline is still permitted to fly to various destinations in the Europe and even increased the frequency of these flights during this summer season.

The A300 wet-lease deal with Mahan Air is not the first time Syria has leased an aircraft from an Iranian airline. In an effort to increase the transport capabilities of the Syrian Air Force, SyrianAir wet-leased at least one Il-76 from Pouya Air, which serves as Iran's Revolutionary Guards' cargo airline. In accordance with its status as a leased aircraft, the Airbus A300 only received the bare minimum of markings indicating that the aircraft belonged to SyrianAir during its career in Syrian service. Indeed, if one is not familiar with the logo of SyrianAir it would be impossible to discern the aircraft's operator from other airlines with similar logos. The airline's logo was applied to the engines and the tail of the plane.

During its service with SyrianAir, A300 'EP-MNM' is believed to not only have replaced A320s in flying commercial routes, but also to have regularly flown Shiite fighters from Iraq to Damascus. The aircraft would eventually return to Mahan Air in early 2017, just over half a year after having entered service with SyrianAir. During this period, a plan was worked out which called for the acquistion of a passenger jet with increased passenger capacity over SyrianAir's A320s at a favourable price for Syria. The aircraft had also be of a type common enough so that spare parts could be readily acquired on the open market or via friendly nations.

To facilitate the aquistion of a large passenger jet, Syria would seek the help of Iran, an expert in acquiring aircraft despite sanctions preventing them from doing so. Previously under sanctions that prevented the country from acquiring new aircraft on the open market, Iran initiated a programme that would see a large influx of mostly second-hand Fokker 100 and MD-80 series aircraft with Iranian airlines by acquiring them via various airlines in post-Soviet states.

The modus operandi of this elaborate scheme would be to use various small airlines in countries such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to purchase aircraft on behalf of Iran. When underway to any of these countries or other supposed destinations 'coincidentally' located in proximity to Iran, the aircraft would then report a malfunction in mid-air and divert to Tehran, where the aircraft would subsequently enter service with the Iranian airline that had purchased it. Unsurprisingly, this profitable business is believed to have been closely linked with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which thus largely monopolised the acquisition of aircraft by Iranian airlines.

Apart from acquiring aircraft for various Iranian airlines, this elaborate scheme was also used to replace the Iranian government Boeing 707, which was originally acquired by the Shah in 1978 and in desperate need of replacement. Seeking the acquisition of a four-engined Airbus A340, Iran contracted Asian Express Airline, a small airline operating out of Tajikistan to various destinations in this country and Russia. Only operating smaller aircraft on its routes, Asian Express Airline suddenly had a requirement for a large A340 and acquired an aircraft that had previously been in service with Air Canada and Turkish Airlines. Of course, the aircraft never entered service with Asian Express Airline and instead arrived in Iran for its conversion to Iran's 'Air Force One'. The aircraft 'EP-AJA' is currently in service with Meraj Air, which operates the aircraft on behalf of the Iranian government.

Although the lifting of international sanctions on Iran in January 2016 meant that Iranian airlines were now able to purchase Western-made passenger aircraft directly from their manufacturer, which resulted in huge orders with Airbus and Boeing, Iran's scheme for acquiring passenger aircraft via other means apparently would be used at least once more. Indeed, Iran's largest and most ambitious aircraft haul to yet was still on the horizon.

On the 13th of April 2016, an Airbus A340-300 with the U.S. designation 'N322AK' comes in to land at Almaty International Airport, Kazakhstan. The unmarked aircraft is a surprising visitor to the city, which rarely sees landings of four-engined passenger jets. This particular aircraft had previously been in service with Cathay Pacific and SriLankan Airlines before placed into storage at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Miami. The sixteen-year-old aircraft had been phased out by SriLankan Airlines in 2015, and was awaiting a buyer in the United States before its arrival in Kazakhstan.

Reports then indicated that the A340 had been acquired by Bek Air, a Kazakh airline that operates services to several cities in the country using a fleet of eight Fokker 100s. This acquisition was highly suspicious as it was unlikely that the small airline had any requirement for a passenger jet as large as the A340 for its domestic routes to cities in Kazakhstan. It would soon be revealed that Bek Air was not destined to be the actual operator of the aircraft, and that the airline actually acted as an intermediate for an Iranian acquisition of an A340 in the same scheme as detailed above.

While the parties involved in this scheme succeeded in bringing the aircraft from the United States to Kazakhstan, it appears that bureacracy prevented the transfer of the aircraft to Iran. Namely, Kazakhstan's Civil Aviation Committee refused to register the aircraft, citing that non-flag carriers such as Bek Air were prohibited from operating large aircraft like the A340s under Kazakh law. This once again reaffirms that Bek Air never intended on operating the aircraft itself, as it would be highly unlikely that Bek Air would have acquired an aircraft it wasn't allowed to operate. Having failed to comply with Kazakh regulations, the aircraft subsequently remained grounded in Almaty.

This situation subsisted until September 2016, when Melad Herfeh, a British citizen of Iranian descent, provided documents stating that the aircraft was owned by the UAE-registered ZAK AVIATION FZE. For reasons that as of yet remain unknown, ZAK AVIATION was exempted from the rule that prevents Kazakh airlines like Bek Air from registering large aircraft, and the A340 could now be registered in Kazakhstan, receiving the designation of UP-A4001 on the 20th September 2016. It is not clear if Kazakh authorities still envisioned Bek Air as the supposed operator of the aircraft at this time, or if they expected the aircraft would enter service with an airline operating out of the UAE.

Now registred as 'UP-A4001', the crew of the Airbus A340 was then said to have detailed a flight plan to Yerevan, Armenia, where the aircraft was supposed to receive further services before re-entering service as a passenger jet. While at this point it already should have been more than clear that Kazakhstan's Civil Aviation Committee was used in a bid to circumvent the sanctions preventing Syria from acquiring passenger aircraft, the A340 eventually received permission to fly to Yerevan. Taking off on the 8th of October 2016, the aircraft instead set course for Iran and after safely landing in Tehran, 'UP-A4001' was towed to the FARS aircraft hangar (seen below) for servicing.

During this period, the A340 was removed from the Kazakh aviation register and transferred to the air operator's certificate (AOC) of the Chadian airline AirInter 1. Now operating as 'TT-WAG', the A340 departed Tehran for Damascus on the 10th of February 2017. After its arrival in Syria, the aircraft changed registration for a final time, becoming 'YK-AZA'. The A340, still registered as 'UP-A4001', can be seen at Tehran Mehrabad Airport below prior to its transfer to Syria.

While the illegal acquisition and subsequent transfer of a single A340 to Syria via Iran through Kazakh territory and law was already an unfortunate blunder for the country, this aircraft was only a  part of a much larger scheme that would eventually see the acquisition of three A340s by exploiting the exact same Kazakh laws. Contrary to the previous transfer, these two A340s would directly fly to Tehran from Athens, were both aircraft had previously been stored for eight years after the bankruptcy of their former operator Olympic Airlines.

Interestingly, while the involved parties encountered problems with registering the first A340 because of the aforementioned laws that prevented Bek Air from operating aircraft like the A340, another UAE-registered company, Bright Horizon FZE, was used during the registration of the second and third aircraft, and both A340s were subsequently registered as UP-A4002 and UP-A4003 on the 30th of December 2016. Both aircraft were still in storage at Athens International Airport at this time, and their new registration allowed the involved parties to ready themselves for their departure for 'Kazakhstan'.

Contrary to the first A340 (UP-A4001), UP-A4002 and UP-A4003 were registered by a citizen of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kairat Temirgalievich Sarinov, whose profession as a housekeeper should in the least have raised several red flags during the registration process of two multi-million passenger jets. Investigations into Kairat Sarinov revealed that he worked for Talgat Kasenov, the former Deputy Chairman of the Civil Aviation Committee. Talgat Kasenov was forced to resign in January 2016 for having accepted bribes, just two months after his appointment. The fact that his name emerged during investigations into this deal is almost too coincidental, and his involvement in this deal is therefore very likely.

Despite losing his position as the Deputy Chairman of the Civil Aviation Committee, it appears that Talgat Kasenov's influence in this organisation still reached far enough to help facilitate the transfer of UP-A4002, UP-A4003 and possibly also UP-A4001 to Iran. UP-A4002 and UP-A4003 departed Athens on the 14th and 15th of February 2017 respectively, with the takeoff of the latter being filmed. It is likely that the aircraft's flight plan called for a direct flight to either Astana or Almaty, Kazakhstan, but unsurprisingly, both aircraft changed course while over the Caspian Sea and landed in Tehran instead.

UP-A4002 and UP-A4003, both still in their Greek Olympic Airlines livery, can be seen at Tehran Mehrabad Airport below. Although UP-A4001 was quickly flown to Damascus after servicing in Tehran, UP-A4002 and UP-A4003 still remain in in Iran, where UP-A4003 was registered by Mahan Air. As the two A340s had been in storage for more than eight years, both aircraft still have very low-flying hours and are attractive aircraft for either SyrianAir or Mahan Air. The two A340s differ slightly from UP-A4001 (later YK-AZA) by their engines, which is indicated by their designation of A340-313 (A340 300-series with CFM 56-5C4 engines).

The A340 acquired by SyrianAir is also of the 300-series, the initial variant produced by Airbus. Equipped with CFM 56-5C3 engines, the aircraft's official designation is A340-312 (A340-300 series with CFM 56-5C3 engines). The A340 has been gradually phased out by airlines around the world in favour for more fuel-efficient aircraft, which makes SyrianAir's acquisition of the type somewhat curious. The type's fuel consumption is however offset by its purchase price, which is low compared to other aircraft in the same class due to the wealth of airlines retiring the type. Alternatively, SyrianAir acquired the A340 because of a lack of other suitable aircraft types that could be acquired via similar paths.

The illegal acquisition and transfer of three A340s to Iran and Syria is currently under investigation by Kazakhstan's National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Although it remains unknown to what extent officials from Kazakhstan's Civil Aviation Committee were involved in this elaborate scheme, the U.S. embassy in Astana expressed its concern for Kazakhstan's meddling in the scheme as per Ratel KZ, whose investigations uncovered interesting details about its involvement in the transfer of the three A340s.

These investigations have meanwhile confirmed that almost every rule in the registration, deregistration and inspection of the three A340s was either grossly violated or completely ignored. The Civil Aviation Committee stated that one of its employees, a twenty-five year old woman, was responsible for the registration and that her ignorance was the culprit for the illegal  acquisition and transfer of three aircraft through Kazakh law. An unlikely explanation given the magnitude of this scheme, as well as the signatures of several officials of the Civil Aviation Committee in the documents and the likely involvement of the former Deputy Chairman Talgat Kasenov.

It is certain that several nations have some thorough investigations to do regarding the extent of their involvement in the transfer of the three A340s, be it by mistake, complete ignorance or simply corruption. The fact that a British national, Melad Herfeh, was also involved in the transfer of the first A340 but also likely the second and third aircraft will indubitably be most interesting for British authorities.

While it currently remains unknown when SyrianAir will receive any of the the two A340s that currently remain in Iran, or if such an acquistion is envisioned at all, 'YK-AZA' currently operates daily to some of SyrianAir's remaining destinations in the Gulf and Egypt. These flights were previously only carried out by the smaller A320s and the wet-leased A300, and it is highly unlikely that the A340 is fully booked on these flights. This raises the question if the flights carried out by the A340 are profitable given the aircraft's high fuel costs.

A340 'YK-AZA' would make its inaugurational flight to Dubai on the 12th of April 2017, an event not only well attended by the press, but also by various government officials such as Syria's Minister of Transport Ali Hammoud, who stated the following:

''Today Airbus 340 is taking off from Damascus International Airport to Dubai in the first flight after it was rehabilitated by the Syrian Ministry of Transport. This big achievement is an indicator of the resilience and vigor of the Syrian people and their ability to produce solutions.''


''Steps are underway to revamp and re-equip all facilities in the airport to allow for an increase in the number of planes and more air traffic. The economic blockade imposed on Syria had badly affected our ability to repair the equipment in the airport. However, we are working with partners to secure more equipment needed to re-operate the airport. In addition to its role in securing more revenue for the state, this step is a message to the world that the air transport sector in Syria is recovering despite the relentless war being waged on Syria.''

Footage of the inaugurational flight can be watched here.

SyrianAir's A340 seats up to 300 passengers in a two-class layout, 275 economy class seats and 25 business class seats. The seats are different from those installed in the aircraft during its service for SriLankan Airlines, and appear similar to the seats in used by Mahan Air in some of its aircraft. The same seats were also used in the A300-600 SyrianAir previously wet-leased, making it likely that the current interior was installed during the aircraft's stay in Iran. To minimise costs, none of the seats have seatback TV screens, not even in Business Class. A video covering the pre-flight and in-flight services provided for passengers of the A340 can be viewed here.

Although it has been speculated that the A340 will be used on new routes to China and Venezuela, it is unlikely that any new routes to these destinations will be launched in the foreseeable future, at least until more aircraft are received to relieve SyrianAir's current fleet of aircraft. Regular flights to cities in China could be attractive for Chinese companies seeking to invest in the rebuilding and economy of Syria in the long run, yet it remains to be seen if there is enough interest to launch these routes at the moment.

While Venezuela's flag carrier Conviasa previously operated flights between Caracas, Damascus and Tehran, supposedly to facilitate the transfer of officials, spies, drugs and weaponry between these countries (hence being dubbed the 'Terror Flight') it is also unlikely that passenger services or any the services above will see SyrianAir flying to Caracas on a regular basis. Indeed, while the introduction of the A340 will permit SyrianAir to launch flights to the few remaining friendly nations in the world, its focus is likely to be centered on countries in the Middle East for the years to come.

Although images of bombed out hospitals and schools (rightfully) continue to dominate headlines about Syria around the world, normal life goes on for many Syrians living in Damascus and the coastal region, their ordinary dealings and businesses contrasting starkly with the suffering of their less fortunate countrymen. Amidst an increasingly stable security situation in Damascus and what is by now a tight control of all its major population centres, the Syrian government can start to look at ways to stabilise and normalise the life of at least a part of the Syrian population. Although it remains unlikely that the implemented sanctions against Syria will be lifted in the foreseeable future, at least until the Assad clan leaves power, it is certain that Syria's allies will aid the country in slowly restoring its status as an at least semi-functional nation. This recent investment in its national airline, despite its illegal nature, is a testimony to this fact, showing the resilience of a government that more than once was at the brink of defeat during the unabating fury of the Syrian War.

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