Why Are U.S.-Sanctioned Airlines Still Flying to the Gulf States?

Syrian Air Airbus A320 at Frankfurt Airport. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Aero Icarus

Gulf rulers should recognize that the United States could choose to enforce sanctions against financial intermediaries for Syrian Air.

America’s Gulf allies are shooting themselves in the foot. While they strive to push back against Iran’s regional aggression and terrorist proxies, they are allowing operations by a Syrian airline that is part and parcel of Iran’s regional agenda. Every one of America’s Gulf allies – with the exceptions of Oman and Saudi Arabia – continues to host Syrian Arab Airlines, which is under U.S. counterterrorism sanctions for airlifting military supplies and personnel from Iran. Dubai has been particularly short-sighted, also hosting flights by Iran’s Mahan Airlines, which has an even worse record of mayhem in the region.

The Sunni-ruled Gulf states have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with President Obama’s policies on Syria and Iran, which they see as too accommodating. Their criticism would carry more weight, however, if they stopped letting in flights by Mahan and Syrian Arab Airlines, also known as Syrian Air. By so doing, they are missing an opportunity to safeguard the integrity of their financial systems, stand up to the Syrian regime’s butchery, and encourage a more active U.S. posture against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

In May 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Syrian Air on charges of providing a platform for the IRGC’s external arm, the Quds Force, to ship illicit arms and ammunition for the Syrian regime’s crackdown. These weapons included “mortars, small arms, rockets, and light anti-aircraft guns” and were shipped with the assistance of Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon and a key player in the Syrian war.

Despite these sanctions, Syrian Air has been permitted to fly to numerous Gulf countries, including not just Iran’s ally Iraq, but also to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates’ three most important city-states (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah) just this month.

Allowing Syrian Air to land in their territory undermines some of those governments’ own stated policies on Iran and Syria.

In March, the Gulf Cooperation Council announced its decision to ban Hezbollah as a terrorist group (GCC member state Bahrain had already done so in 2013.) In his 2016 UN speech, the U.A.E.’s foreign minister called Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and denounced its terrorist proxies for the suffering they had caused in Syria. In May, it was reported that Kuwait instructed local financial institutions not to deal with any entity under U.S. or UN sanctions for links to Hezbollah or Iran.

These countries have also convicted individuals on charges of terrorist activity on behalf of Hezbollah and the IRGC.

In Kuwait, one such cell was caught last year with 42 thousand pounds of ammunition, 317 pounds of explosives, 68 weapons, and 204 grenades. Bahraini authorities expelled an Iranian diplomat after they allegedly disrupted a local cell with 1.5 tons of explosives and “strong connections to with the [IRGC] and Hezbollah.” Emirati prosecutors asserted in April that the IRGC had activated a Hezbollah sleeper cell in 2013, and in recent months several other defendants have been convicted in the Emirates on similar charges.

Remarkably, one of the aircraft that Dubai and Kuwait City have been hosting is leased to Syrian Air but actually belongs to another sanctioned airline, Iran’s Mahan Airlines. On the night of August 4, the old Airbus A306 (tail registration: EP-MNM) landed in Damascus, one of many weekly flights that Mahan operates to the Syrian capital. But this flight was different. Rather than returning to Tehran in the dead of night like it did many times before, the airplane was overhauled and transferred to Syrian Air.

The plane resumed its operations nine days later, with a Damascus-to-Dubai flight on August 13. Between then and October 21, it flew thirty times to Dubai and twenty times to Kuwait City, as well as to destinations in Sudan and Iraq. The U.A.E. even lets Mahan operate its own twice-daily flights to and from Dubai, despite the fact that the airline’s alleged violations exceed even the accusations leveled against Syrian Air.

Mahan has been under U.S. sanctions since 2011. Like Syrian Air, the charges against it include facilitating the shipment of personnel and arms into Syria for the IRGC’s Quds Force, as well as transporting “personnel, weapons, and goods on behalf of Hizballah.” The United States also declared that Mahan has facilitated covert travel in and out of Iraq for suspected Quds Force officers to aid sectarian militias. The most prominent Shi’ite militias in Iraq are designated by the U.A.E. as terrorists.

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