Flight records say Russia sent tons of cash to Syria

The records of over flight requests show more than 200 tons of "bank notes" from Moscow to Damascus

This past summer, as the Syrian economy began to unravel and the military pressed hard against an armed rebellion, a Syrian government plane ferried what flight records describe as more than 200 tons of “bank notes” from Moscow.

The records of overflight requests were obtained by ProPublica. The flights occurred during a period of escalating violence in a conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead since fighting broke out in March 2011.


The regime of Bashar al-Assad is increasingly in need of cash to stay afloat and continue financing the military’s efforts to crush the uprising. U.S. and European sanctions, including a ban on minting Syrian currency, have damaged the country’s economy. As a result, Syria lost access to an Austrian bank that had printed its bank notes.


“Having currency that you can put into circulation is certainly something that is important in terms of running an economy and more so in an economy that is become more cash-based as things deteriorate,” said Daniel Glaser, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes.  “It is certainly something the Syrian government wants to do, to pay soldiers or pay anybody anything."

According to the flight records, eight round-trip flights between Damascus International Airport and Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport each carried 30 tons of bank notes back to Syria. There are records relating to the flights in Arabic and English as well as copies of over-flight requests sent to Iran, which are in Farsi.

Syrian and Russian officials did not respond to ProPublica's questions about the authenticity and accuracy of the flight records. It is not possible to know whether the logs accurately described the cargo or what else might have been on board the flights. Nor do the logs specify the type of currency.

But ProPublica confirmed nearly all of the flights took place through international plane-tracking services, photos by aviation enthusiasts, and air traffic control recordings. 

Each time the manifest listed “Bank Notes” as its cargo, the plane traveled a circuitous route. Instead of flying directly over Turkish airspace, as civilian planes have, the Ilyushin-76 cargo plane, operated by the Syrian Air Force, avoided Turkey and flew over Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan.

Tensions have been rising between Syria and Turkey since the spring. Last month, Turkey forced down a Syrian passenger plane traveling from Moscow. Turkey suspected the flight of carrying military cargo but officials have not said what, if anything, was confiscated.


If the flight manifests are accurate, a total of 240 tons of bank notes moved from Moscow to Damascus over a 10-week period beginning July 9th and ending on September 15th.

U.S. officials interviewed said evidence of monetary assistance, like military cooperation, point to a pattern of Russian support for Assad that extends from concrete aid to protecting Syria from U.N. sanctions.

In September, 2011, six months into the violence, the European Union imposed sanctions that prohibited its members from minting or supplying new Syrian coinage or banknotes. In a statement, the EU said the sanctions aimed “to obstruct those who are leading the crackdown in Syria and to restrict the funding being used to perpetrate violence against the Syrian people.” At the time, Syria’s currency was being minted by Oesterreichische Banknoten- und Sicherheitsdruck GmbH, a subsidiary of Austria’s Central Bank.


President Obama has issued five Executive Orders that prevent members of the Assad regime from entering the United States and accessing the U.S. financial system.

 “Increasingly, it is more difficult to finance the war machine and the cost of the war is becoming more expensive for the Assad regime,” said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Targeted sanctions on those leading the violence are working and start to bite into their pocket books.”

Russia appears to be helping Syria blunt the impact of the sanctions.

This past June, Reuters reported that Russia had begun printing new Syrian pounds and that an initial shipment of bank notes had already arrived.  The report was denied by the Syrian Central Bank, which claimed the only new money in circulation were bills that had replaced damaged or worn bank notes. Such a swap, the bank contended, would have no effect on the economy.


On August 3rd, the official Syrian news agency SANA, reporting from a news conference in Moscow with Syrian and Russian economic officials, quoted Syrian officials acknowledging that Russia is printing money. Qadr Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister for Economic Affairs, was quoted by SANA as calling the deal with Russia a “triumph,” over sanctions.


Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad al-Jleilati said that Russia was providing both replacement notes and additional currency to, as SANA put it, “reflect the country’s changing GDP.”  

Al-Jleilati said the money would have no effect on inflation. Printing new notes beyond simply replacing old ones could undermine Syria’s already battered currency.

At the time of the meeting, at least 30 tons of currency had already been delivered, according to the flight records, and another 210 tons would be delivered in subsequent flights.

In its regional economic outlook released earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund noted that Syria’s currency has lost 44 percent of its value since March 2011, trading for about 70 pounds to the dollar compared with about 47 pounds when the conflict began.

Ibrahim Saif, a political economist based in Jordan and a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center said 30 tons of bank notes twice a week is a significant amount for a country like Syria.

“I truly believe it’s not only that they’re exchanging old money for new notes. They are printing money because they need new notes,” Saif said.

“Most of the government revenue that comes from taxes, in terms of other services, it’s almost now dried up,” noted Saif. Yet, “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.”

Before the unrest broke out, Syria had about $17 billion in foreign currency reserves. Saif said he and other economists in the region estimate they now have about $6-8 billion in reserves, dwindling about $500 million a month for salaries and supplies to keep the government running.

In Moscow, the Syrian finance minister had said that his country required additional foreign currency reserves, which Russia may provide in the form of loans.

“It’s possible the Syrians are acquiring foreign currency reserves, either Euros or US dollars, which they would need to conduct any serious commerce,” said Juan Zarate, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes during the Bush administration.

Zarate noted that other countries, when faced with economic sanctions, have leaned on allies for foreign currency reserves. China supplied North Korea with such funds in the past and Venezuela agreed to sell reserves to Iran.

Syria’s currency is still traded on open markets, but there is limited on-the-ground information about the economy, including inflation.  

Officials at the IMF “have not been able to get direct information about Syria for at least a year,” Masood Ahmed, director of the group’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told reporters at a conference in Tokyo last month.

Glaser, at Treasury, declined to put a figure on Syria’s current reserves but said the Syrian economy is suffering in part from a lack of tourism and a ban on oil sales, both of which provided Damascus with foreign currency. “There is significant inflation in the country. It can be caused by adding new currency or not having foreign reserves to prop up the existing currency.”

Quinn Norton contributed to this story.





nagesh kini

5 years ago

That Russia has the expertise to print and ship currency notes is indeed a revelation.
Here our EC stops four vehicles from transporting currency over land. Our mantri-shantris will explore airlifting from now!

Sahakarya Kranti Diwas: A movement for positive change on Dr Kurien’s birth anniversary

A gathering of Mumbai's leading activists with interests in a wide range of social issues gathered today at Moneylife Foundation to mark the birth anniversary of Dr Verghese Kurien. In line with Dr Kurien's ideals, it was decided to commemorate the day by pledging to cooperate for positive change or as “Sahakarya Kranti Diwas”. Over 12,000 people have signed a petition asking the government to confer the Bharat Ratna on India's milkman

Several activists gathered at the Moneylife Foundation Centre on Monday to celebrate 26th November, the birth anniversary of Dr Verghese Kurien, and to appeal that his day be recognised as Sahakarya Kranti Diwas or a movement for positive change. A petition demanding a Bharat Ratna for Dr Kurien was signed on by over 12,000 people. Many of those who supported the movement have also been writing to the Padma awards committee to bring to their attention the wishes of ordinary Indians. The petition, which has been sent to the President of India as well as all those who are part of the decision-making hierarchy in the government, has already been sent electronically. A print copy will also be sent to them shortly.


Anand Halve, co-founder of Chlorophyll, came up with the idea that the best way to honour Dr Kurien’s memory would be to recognise his birth anniversary as “Sahakarya Kranti Diwas”. The idea for a movement for positive change found quick acceptability and the meeting of activists and others at Moneylife Foundation today reflected exactly that spirit.


The meeting started with Moneylife Foundation’s founder, Sucheta Dalal providing statistics to show how only one Bharat Ratna so far has been awarded to a person who has worked with India's poor and needy, and that was to Mother Theresa. The majority of Bharat Ratna awardees have been freedom fighters, artists or political leaders. Also, plenty of Bharat Ratna awards have been bestowed posthumously. Ms Dalal made the point that a Bharat Ratna will mean nothing to Dr Kurien when he is no more. But it will be an acknowledgement that someone who pledged his life for the upliftment of poor farmers and achieved transformational change that benefitted millions of people gets due recognition in India.


Vinay Somani, founder of which is probably India’s largest platform for connecting NGOs across India, provided many insights from the interactions and experience at Karmayog. He said the first step to being a socially conscious citizen was to be honest about oneself and about one’s interactions. He added there was a great need for NGOs to support one another by rising above personal egos. Mr Somani, an engineer and a Harvard Business School alumnus, then went on to provide several tips on what leads to effective action. One of these was the need to write and document various interactions—he urged people to write about issues, write letters to editors, write letters of protest and petition for various kinds of change. Putting things in writing, he said, often yields better and faster results.


Anand Halve, spoke about his interactions and learnings about what motivates people to work for change. He pointed out that people don’t react to intellect, they react to emotions. If you cannot reach a person emotionally, it invariably leads to a cop-out. In an engaging talk that drew from the experiences of those involved in the Arab Spring revolution, he pointed out that social media and visual images (through the easy reach of photographs and videos available on smart phones) had helped spread the message and galvanised people into action. But none of it would have happened if they didn’t feel emotionally charged. Mr Halve as well as several other activists spoke of similar challenges in getting their issues to be discussed and debated by mainstream media.


N Venkat Krishnan, the IIM Ahmedabad alumnus who opted out of the corporate rat-race to start GiveIndia, an NGO that provides a platform for individual and payroll giving, also related his experiences. Dr Sadanand Nadkarni, former dean of Sion Hospital, explained how the government medical system, through faulty processes is creating badly trained doctors and this has serious implications for society. Dr Nadkarni, who is 80, is a tireless fighter for improvement in medical administration and policies and his talk charged many activists to pledge support for this cause.


Another activist who drew loud applause was Samir Zaveri, an untiring fighter for the cause of railway passengers. Mr Zaveri, who lost both his legs in a railway accident at the age of 16, has been a champion for a vast array of railway passenger safety issues, medical care, ambulances and compensation. He uses the RTI (Right to Information) Act as well as the legal system most effectively.


SV (Bobby) Sista, founder and executive trustee of  Population First and Nanhi Kali—two NGOs involved in population control and the girl child respectively, spoke about the vast challenges involved in his mission and the effort and strategies involved in getting these issues discussed by the mainstream media.


Also present was SD Israni, senior advocate and Moneylife columnist whose talk was peppered with anecdotes about how writing letters of complaint led to positive consequences.


Anil Kohli, an entrepreneur who has become an enthusiastic Twitter activist, provided examples of how this micro-blogging network has the power and reach to provide unexpected results. He is involved in a movement to transition from Twitter into multiple activities on the ground led by individual teams who are networked through the social media. Jemin Panchal and several other activists who were part of the move from social-media to on-the-ground activism were present at the meeting.


Justine Leigh-Bell, a project leader at Vanashakti an NGO engaged in environment protection, spoke about the effort in launching a value-based environmental education programme through schools in India, which plans an ambitious nationwide rollout.


Indrani Malkani, trustee of vCAN, spoke about how working with the administration had helped several of her causes. An important one, after the 24 July 2006 cloudburst in Mumbai was to get HAM radio operators officially inducted into Mumbai’s Disaster Management Plan. A second was the school bus project, which happened through Cathedral School and the third was the clean up of Girgaum Chowpatty.


 Interestingly, the entire programme was recorded and will be uploaded on Moneylife and YouTube, due to the efforts and cooperation of another activist-volunteer Suvendu Haddar, an IT expert. Other prominent activists present at the meeting included Gaurang Damani, Ashok Ravat and Rajesh Gada.



Atul Bhide

5 years ago

Just thought of sharing a small piece of information with regards to Dr. Kurien - recently 'The Man Who Made The Elephant Dance' the authorized audio autobiography of Dr. Kurien was released by Narayana Murthy, which is available on flipkart & music stores. Tom Alter has lent his voice for this prestigious audio book and Ratan Tata has given his audio foreword in his own voice.

Atul Bhide

5 years ago

My compliments to Mr. Halve for coming up with most appropriate idea. It will not just acknowledge Dr. Kurien's mammoth work but will truly propagate how co-operative movement, if headed by or equipped with Professionals at the decision making, can bear the fruits which actually reaches to the last man standing.
Also let us not limit our self with India but target it as a ‘World Co-operative Movement Day’, as what Dr. Kurien has achieved is an ideal example for the world to follow.
A Big Thank You to Mr. Halve & all the people behind this worthy cause.

Let’s Do It!
- Atul Bhide
Thane, Maharashtra


Bruce Scholten

In Reply to Atul Bhide 5 years ago

Good to see Dr. (Miss) Amrita Patel with Atul Bhide at Dr. Swaminathan;s lecture honouring Milkman Kurien's 91st birthday. Just as Dr. Kurien made the Elephant of bureaucracy dance in India, we hope that Green and White Revolutions can meet in what Dr. Swaminathan calls an Evergreen Revolution.


5 years ago

Wonderful initiative for a most deserving cause.. Al my good wishes for its success !!

No consensus at all-party meet on FDI

The government had taken the decision to allow 51% FDI in multi-brand retail in November last year but put it on hold following strong objections from parties, including the then UPA constituent Trinamool Congress

New Delhi: Consensus eluded an all-party meeting called on the foreign direct investment (FDI) issue on Monday even as Samajwadi Party and BSP provided comfort to the government by not insisting on voting and Trinamool Congress sprang a surprise by speaking in a similar tone, reports PTI.


However, UPA (Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre) ally DMK kept the suspense over its position on voting while conveying its concerns over allowing 51% FDI in multi-brand retail.


Opposition parties, including NDA, AIADMK, BJD, Left parties, TDP and JD(S) insisted on a discussion under rules entailing voting, making it clear that trouble will continue in Parliament which failed to transact any business for the third straight day on Monday over the issue.


“There will be no compromise on (discussion under Rule) 184 (which entails voting),” said leader of opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj after the two-and-a-half hour-long meeting.


Asked if the BJP would not allow Parliament to function, she replied, “no compromise at all... When I said no compromise, it means something.”


Highlighting the fact that there was no meeting ground between the government and opposition over voting issue, Shiv Sena leader Anant Geete said, “There was a discussion but no decision.”


The government got comfort as its outside supporters SP and BSP made it clear that they would be willing for discussion under any rule. They did not press for voting and left the decision to the presiding officers of both the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament) and the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Indian Parliament).


Trinamool Congress, which only last week moved a no-confidence motion over the FDI issue, sprang a surprise as it also did not insist on voting and said the chair should decide the rule under which discussion could take place.


“When our no-confidence motion was refused, now let the Speaker decide under which section discussion can take place,” Trinamool Congress leader Sudip Bandopadhyay told reporters after the meeting chaired by leader of the Lok Sabha Sushilkumar Shinde.


“Opposition is moving with begging bowl in hand for Rule 184,” he said.


Insisting that Trinamool is “totally against” introduction of FDI in retail and capping of subsidised LPG cylinders at six per year, Bandopadhyay said, “Let the opposition bring another no-confidence motion, we will support them. We had given them the golden opportunity to no-confidence motion and not just (rule) 184 or 193.”


Rule 184 entails voting while Rule 193 does not.


At the meeting, DMK leader TR Baalu conveyed his party’s concerns over allowing 51% FDI in retail. But he remained vague on whether or not his party would want voting on the issue.


AIADMK insisted on voting as did JD (U), BJD and some other parties.


Finance minister P Chidambaram and commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma justified the decision by citing the difficult economic situation.


Sharma sought to reject the opposition charge that the FDI decision was taken in haste and without proper consultations. He said the government had discussed the issue with all stake-holders before the decision.


The government had taken the decision to allow 51% FDI in multi-brand retail in November last year but put it on hold following strong objections from parties, including the then UPA constituent Trinamool Congress. The hold was removed in September this year.


BJD leader B Mahtab said his party has already given notice under Rule 184 as it feels the FDI in multi-brand retail will ruin the agriculture and manufacturing sector.


RJD chief Lalu Prasad said the hue and cry is being raised as elections are not far away. He said former NDA (BJP-led National Democratic Alliance) government had spoken about allowing 100% FDI in retail. He said the decision on the format under which discussion could be held should be left to presiding officers of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.


Parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath later appealed to those wanting discussion with voting to reconsider their views and hoped that a solution will be found out.


“I have appealed to those who want discussion under Rule 184 to reconsider their views. I heard everybody's views. I will discuss the matter with presiding officers of both the Houses to see how Parliament gets to work. We will find a way out,” he told reporters.


The meeting was also attended by BJP leader LK Advani, BSP chief Mayawati, BJD’s Arjun Charan Sethi and SP's Ram Gopal Yadav among others.


Describing the meeting as “very useful”, Nath said, “All political parties have given their views that House must run.


Political parties are unanimous that the House should run.”


On the differences of opinions at the meeting, he said, “Some political parties expressed their opinions that they want discussion with voting. Many others have said they want discussion and it does not matter under which rule... It should be left to Presiding Officers of both Houses.”


Asked whether the government is shying away from voting, Nath replied in negative.


“We are not shying away from the vote but we have to respect the feeling of other political parties also,” he said.


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