Syria is expanding its airline industry with a venture that may be aiding the ailing regime of President Bashar Assad. Fly Damas, the country’s newest airline, is so far flying the majority of its routes to one place — Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria on the border of Turkey that is contested by Kurdish fighters, Arab forces and troops loyal to Assad. Fly Damas’ aircraft, based in the Syrian capital of Damascus, is the only aircraft on the radar flying into the local Qamishli airport, suggesting it is affiliated with the regime and likely to be bringing in much-needed supplies and weaponry to the Syrian army.
The formation of Fly Damas comes at a time when Assad is struggling to maintain ground in the northern part of the country: Qamishli is one of the last places in the region where Assad still controls sizable territory. It is also one of the most fraught battlegrounds for the regime because it is fighting several opposition factions, including those armed and supported by the U.S. and its anti-Islamic State group coalition.
When the U.S. began arming Arab and Kurdish forces in the area, Assad and his allies — Iranian forces and the Lebanese military group Hezbollah — sought to counter the offensive by sending more ammunition and weapons to their troops on the ground. But given the proximity of regime forces to opposition factions, Assad couldn’t risk airdrops. Likewise, weapons could not be transported through other border crossings that were manned by enemy combatants. A possible solution: fly it in.
When Fly Damas was launched last year, officials working with the airline said foreign trade sanctions were making it difficult to for the airline to fulfill demand.
“Sanctions are making it very, very difficult. Hopefully we have passed through all these difficulties,” Esmail Sharaf, vice commercial manager, said in an interview with the Telegraph recently.
A notice on the Fly Damas Facebook page said it would fly between Syria, Beirut, Amman and Saudi Arabia, prompting suggestions that Assad, after almost five years of civil war, is trying to promote Syria as a tourist destination overseas and maintain his position as Syria’s head of state for the foreseeable future. So far, though, the airline is flying only to Qamishli. The regime still controls that city's airport, as well as several other accessible yet nonfunctioning airports throughout the country. Its presence in Qamishli would not mark the first time the regime has flown aircraft to its strongholds in Syria. It is using an aircraft owned by Mahan Air, an Iranian airline, to transport supplies needed for its fight in Damascus.
Samer Al-Dehni, a native of Damascus, appears to be the owner of Fly Damas. He describes himself as the general manager in an online video and says the goal behind establishing the airline was to lend support to Syrian Air, which he said in the interview is Fly Damas’ “mother company.” Al-Dehni was formerly the commercial director at Cham Wings Airlines, whose chairman is under U.S. sanctions.
The only remaining piece of the puzzle is whether the Assad regime is using commercial airlines for military use, something which is nearly impossible to confirm because Qamishli airport is not independently monitored.
An independent air tracking agency told International Business Times that Fly Damas, although the company was created in 2013, has yet to register its papers with an international aviation group.