Will reopening Aleppo Airport revive the city’s economy?
Enab Baladi – Zeynep Masri
The Syrian regime’s Ministry of Transport has decided to resume passenger flights through Aleppo International Airport in February 2020 after months of shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aleppo International Airport was brought back into service on 15 January; the Syrian Arab Airlines conducted its first flight between Lebanon’s capital Beirut and the northern city of Aleppo. The plane took off with some passengers.
After an eight-year hiatus, due to the conflict, flights were resumed through Aleppo International Airport in 2020, with a domestic flight from Damascus International Airport. The flight came days after the Syrian Minister of Transport, Ali Hammoud, announced the resumption of civilian flights at Aleppo International Airport. This decision came after the Syrian regime forces regained control over large areas across the city of Aleppo.
Aleppo International Airport is located ten kilometers (around 6 miles) from the city center of Aleppo, with an area of about 3,044 m2. It serves the city of Aleppo and the surrounding villages and cities. The airport is regarded as a secondary hub for Syrian Arab Airlines.
When Aleppo Airport re-started international passenger flights, the Syrian government scrambled to promote the economic benefits that the resumption of those flights would bring to the city. The government also started to encourage expatriates to return home to activate the tourism sector in the city.
Aleppo without economic viabilities
The Director-General of the Syrian Civil Aviation, Basem Mansour, said in a statement to the pro-regime Sham FM radio on 15 January that re-opening Aleppo airport means once again linking the city with the outside world. Aleppo was connected before the outbreak of war in Syria with more than 45 stations.
Mansour added that the resumption of flights helps local citizens, as well as expatriates, industrialists, merchants, and citizens living outside the country, to restore their communication and commercial and industrial activities. He pointed out that most of those coming from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport are transit passengers.
The Syrian regime promotes the return of Syrian expatriates and refugees to Syria after the Russian-backed conference on refugee return, held in the Syrian capital, Damascus, for two days in November 2020.
On 11 January, Aleppo International Airport’s official Facebook page said that there would be a weekly scheduled flight between Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and Aleppo via Fly Baghdad, a private Iraqi airline.
Enab Baladi has monitored the official websites of the three main airlines: Syrian Arab Airlines, Cham Wings Airlines, and Fly Baghdad. There are no scheduled flights to Aleppo airport yet.
To find out the economic effects of resuming air travel at Aleppo airport, Enab Baladi contacted the head of the Syria Economic Working Group, Dr. Osama al-Qadi.
Al-Qadi said that re-activating air transport and cargo flights may contribute to bringing goods to Aleppo and resuming shipping activities with the outside world.
However, while economic activities must be carried out in order to revive the city of Aleppo, shipping and transportation of goods require foreign currencies. Currently, foreign currencies are not available in the Central Bank of Syria (CBS), private banks, or even on the black market. This is because the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, issued Decree No. 3 of 2020, which forbids the use of anything other than the Syrian pound as payment for any type of commercial transaction or cash settlement.
Resumption of airport operations can do “little” to boost economic growth–and not in the desired form–because of the country’s lack of resources and raw materials, as well as the absence of foreign currencies from the market. These are the factors required by the owners of enterprises for production, manufacturing, export, and even import.
The Syrian regime now faces an acute economic crisis as a result of its inability to adjust the exchange rate, the devaluation of the local currency, high inflation rates, the economic sanctions imposed under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, and the European sanctions.
Syrian airlines are banned from European Union airspace due to the sanctions imposed on the Syrian government. Therefore, their air operations are restricted to flying over the countries supporting the Syrian government, most notably, Russia and Iran.
Engineer Talal Khudair, head of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Tourism, said that the arrival of the first plane to Aleppo International Airport is an essential indicator that the economy is back on the road of progress and development in the governorate. He indicated that this would revitalize the tourism sector in Aleppo, including restaurants and hotels. The return of flights will also encourage expatriates to visit their city.
Regarding the reactivation of the city’s tourism sector, al-Qadi does not think there will be a significant positive impact of re-opening the airport of Aleppo. The tourism sector as a whole has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic all over the world. The situation is worse in a country like Syria. In fact, there is nothing resembling tourism in Syria because “it has all the earth’s armies,” and it is a military state that does not encourage trade, investment, or tourism.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) stated on 16 January that international passenger traffic decreased by about 60 percent in 2020 due to preventive measures and border closures due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The ICAO added that the financial losses sustained by airlines amounted to about 370 billion US dollars, with a decrease in the number of passengers by 50 percent on domestic flights and by 74 percent on international flights.
In his comments to Enab Baladi, al-Qadi suggested that the airport’s reopening was for military and strategic reasons rather than economic ones.
Al-Qadi said that he feared that the transportation of Iranian militias and particular goods related to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps would dominate the air operations taking place at Aleppo airport following the return of the international flights.
Al-Qadi added that he is concerned that Israel will launch airstrikes on Aleppo airport on suspicion of weapons transport operations. Israel has targeted Damascus International Airport several times previously for this alleged reason.
He continued, “Two years ago, when the Iranian Minister of Transport came to Syria, he was received at Aleppo airport, and all attendees at the time were Iranians. So, it is most likely that re-opening the airport was intended to facilitate the movement of Iranians in the north.”
Over the past years, Israeli raids have targeted Damascus airport’s vicinity several times, according to the pro-regime media outlets’ narrative. Israel, however, has not claimed any responsibility for the attacks.
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