Syrian private airlines company “Cham Wings” increases activity despite sanctions
Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri
The sanctions imposed on the Syrian Cham Wings Airlines company have failed to limit its apparent activity. In recent months, the private company made headlines for its role in the migrant crisis at the Belarusian-Polish borders, announcement of flights to new destinations, and sponsorship of a “humanitarian” aviation conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) organized by a United Nations agency, despite the company’s support to the Syrian regime that is accused of human rights violations.
The company grew in activity, breaking the decades-long monopoly of the main national carrier, Syrian Airways, after obtaining a license to operate scheduled flights as a second national carrier in 2014.
Cham Wings terminated its operations in 2012 following the Syrian revolution.
The company does not declare the number of airplanes it possesses on its official website and states that its fleet includes modern “Airbus 320” planes and has future plans to buy and join another group of planes that suits the running plans of different domestic and foreign destinations.
Cham Wings involvement in Belarus migrant crisis
After having all its November flights from the Syrian capital of Damascus to the Belarusian capital of Minsk fully booked, Cham Wings ran an empty flight to Belarus to return Syrians stranded at the Belarusian-Polish borders, who “wish” to fly back to Damascus.
A statement posted by Minsk Airport’s Telegram channel said that Cham Wings’ Airbus A-320 plane transported 96 passengers from Minsk International Airport to Damascus on 8 December, without giving further details on the nationality and identity of the passengers.
Even though a source in the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority (SCAA) said that the flight from Minsk to Damascus was not a “repatriation” flight and likely to be a “one time flight,” the Cham Wings company announced another flight from Belarus to Damascus on 10 December, bringing back Syrians stuck on the Belarusian side of the European Union (EU)’s outer border.
On 2 December, the EU imposed restrictive measures on Cham Wings company along with 17 individuals and ten other entities, mostly from Belarus, after the company increased its activity of transporting migrants to Belarus and helped “incite and regulate” the transit of migrants from illegal border crossings through Russia to the EU, despite announcing the suspension of its flights to Belarus on 13 November.
According to the Official Journal of the EU, the Syrian company of Cham Wings Airlines increased the number of flights from Damascus to Minsk since the summer of 2021 to transport migrants to Belarus who intended to cross the external borders of the European Union illegally.
The Journal pointed out that in autumn 2021, Cham Wings opened two new offices in Minsk in order to be able to organize the flights between Damascus and Minsk.
Syrian journalist and human rights defender Mansour al-Omari told Enab Baladi that Cham Wings is engaged in smuggling people from Damascus to Minsk, and many of its flights carried asylum seekers from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, as the airline hid information related to these flights.
Al-Omari added that the regime government is taking part in the Belarus migrant crisis to inject money into its economy by requiring payment for air tickets from inside Syria and to support the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russia’s ally, in his inhumane use of asylum seekers as a political weapon against Europe at the Belarus-Poland borders.
New flight destinations
On 27 November, Cham Wings announced its first flight from Damascus International Airport to Abu Dhabi International Airport in the UAE, “within the company’s expansion plan of running direct flights to external destinations.”
On 25 November, the airline company announced the possibility of booking direct flights to the Pakistani city of Karachi as of 15 December.
According to its official website, Cham Wings Airlines operates flights to and from Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Kuwait, Sultanate of Oman, Iran, Emirates, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, and Pakistan.
Sponsoring an international conference despite sanctions
On 28 October, Cham Wings company announced its sponsoring of the 13th Global Humanitarian Aviation Conference (GHAC) and Exhibition in Dubai, organized by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
The company mentioned on its Facebook account that the main aim of its sponsoring is to exchange views with participants and come up with solutions for the transport of humanitarian assistance and essential supplies in cooperation with relevant organizations, particularly the WFP.
The GHAC event assembles elite aviation innovators, decision-makers, and senior managers to discuss a broad spectrum of pressing aviation safety concerns and emerging trends in the industry, according to its official website.
The website pointed out that the GHAC’s safety promotion initiatives are recognized by private and international organizations, civil aviation authorities, and NGOs.
It adds, the global annual GHAC event has paved the way for new safety initiatives, innovative partnerships, and greater efficiency in humanitarian air operations through better collaboration.
United Nations agencies’ cooperation with Cham Wings Airlines is not new; for example, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has had financial transactions with this profit-oriented company involved in war crimes.
On 6 January, WHO employed Cham Wings to transport 16 tons of medicine, supplies, and medical equipment from the organization’s warehouses in the UAE’s Dubai to the Libyan city of Benghazi.
Al-Omari told Enab Baladi that the United States government is cooperating with the WFP to “enhance the capacity and effectiveness” of an entity (Cham Wings) sanctioned by the United States for involvement in war crimes and international terrorism.
He added that the Cham Wings Airlines company has been transporting weapons in Syria used to kill Syrians, Iranian militia fighters and Hezbollah elements to Syria, and Syrian “mercenaries” and Wagner fighters to fight in Libya, as documented by UN reports.
Al-Omari pointed out that the company helped US-designated Iranian entities circumvent sanctions, supported corruption and reconstruction efforts that violate property rights in Syria, and got involved in money-laundering operations in the Middle East.
Al-Omari said that the Syrian regime is financially and politically benefiting from the Cham Wings company’s activities, noting that any cooperation with the company makes collaborators complicit in promoting and financing a corporation involved in war crimes in Syria; therefore, all dealings with the company must be stopped and those implicated must be held accountable.
The Cham Wings Airlines company was established in 2007 as one of the companies of the Shammout Business Group, which operates in the automotive sector selling new and used vehicles, under the management of Syrian businessman Issam Shammout and his partner Mohammed Alaa Shammout.
On 23 September 2007, the Damascus-based company obtained an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) from the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority (SCAA).
The regime needs Cham Wings Airlines
Syrian economic researcher and Middle East affairs specialist Khaled Turkawi told Enab Baladi that the regime and Iran need an airline carrier to stay connected with the outside world and ferry light weapons, drugs, and money.
Turkawi added that the Cham Wings company is affiliated with Iran and supported by it, and there is no doubt that the Syrian regime is also using it as an instrument to carry out its policies.
The regime used Cham Wings to pressure Europeans with the refugee issue, so they responded by sanctioning the company and those involved with it.
The researcher explained that sanctions imposed on the company minimized dealings with it and placed its remittances and financial resources under strict control.
Previous US sanctions
The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Cham Wings company on the US sanctions list on 31 December 2016 for providing financial, technological, and service support to the Syrian government and Syrian Arab Airlines.
According to the US Treasury Department, Cham Wings has cooperated with Government of Syria officials to transport militants to Syria to fight on behalf of the Syrian regime and assisted the previously-designated Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) in moving weapons and equipment for the Syrian regime.
Cham Wings’ Damascus-to-Dubai flight was one of the main routes SMI used to launder money throughout the region, the US Department of Treasury added.
On 13 January, the Cham Wings company released a statement denying all claims and accusations and said that it had transported some humanitarian medical aids to Libya in response to the coronavirus crisis and that the company’s flights are intended only to ferry civilians, and some are designated for humanitarian services, or for carrying Syrian nationals residing in Libya.
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