By Alex Spillius
Russia is printing bank notes and sending them by the plane load to Syria to help the besieged regime pay its soldiers and civil servants, a new report suggests.
Flight records obtained by the investigative website ProPublica showed that at least 120 and up to 240 tons of bank notes were delivered during a ten-week period between July and September.
On eight round-trip trips between Moscow’s Vnukovo airport and Damascus International Airport, the “Type of Cargo” is listed as “Bank – Notes (30 Ton)”. Neither their denomination nor value was specified however.
Seven of the eight Syria Air flights were confirmed through international plane-tracking services, photographs from amateur plane-spotters and official air traffic control records.
Each manifest detailed a circuitous route over Iran and Iraq, countries that are friendly to the Syrian regime, rather than the most direct route over Turkey, which has become a foe of President Bashar al-Assad.
The deliveries appear to have softened the damage caused to the Syrian regime by stiff European sanctions, which among other things annulled an agreement with an Austrian bank that had previously printed the Syrian pound.
The EU has passed 19 rounds of sanctions against the regime since pro-democracy protests in March 2011 descended into a civil war that has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives.
Russia has been Mr Assad’s key international ally throughout, blocking punitive resolutions in the UN Security Council on three occasions.
In the summer, it was reported that Russia had begun printing Syrian pounds and had already delivered its first shipment, while Damascus-based bankers said that new bank notes printed in Russia were circulating in trial amounts in the capital and Aleppo, the commercial capital.
Such reports were denied by the Syrian Central Bank, but in August the official Syrian news agency, Sana, quoted Syrian officials on a visit to Moscow as saying that Russia was printing money for Damascus.
Ibrahim Saif of the Carnegie Middle East Centre said that 30 tons of bank notes was a significant amount for a country of Syria’s size.
“I truly believe they are printing money because they need new notes. Most of the government revenue that comes from taxes, in terms of other services, it’s almost now dried up.
But, he added, “they continue to pay salaries”.
“They have not shown any signs of weakness in fulfilling their domestic obligations. The only way they can do this is to get some sort of cash in the market.”