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.
The flight path between Syria and Russia described in the manifests.
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.