Two Iranian airlines stopped flights to Syria after an Israeli air strike June 10 temporarily shut down the Damascus airport, sources told Iran International.
Western intelligence sources said that Caspian Air and Qeshm Fars Air both have stopped flying to Syria and the only Iranian airline sending planes is Mahan Air, which was sanctioned by the United States in 2011 for transporting weapons to Iranian proxies at the outset of the Syrian civil war.
Caspian Air is also sanctioned by the United States for its links with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its extraterritorial Qods (Quds) Force (IRGC-QF). In 2019, the US also sanctioned Qeshm cargo airline as part of Mahan Air and providing material support to the IRGC-QF. All three airlines are believed to have been established and owned by the Revolutionary Guard.
According to information received by Iran International, Mahan Air flights have increased by 30 percent following suspension of service by the other two companies. Aleppo is the destination of most Mahan flights. The same sources said Hamid Arabnejad the CEO of Mahan Air in a recent trip to Syria took part in the inauguration of a new flight to the Aleppo airport.
In addition to transporting weapons, the sources alleged that Mahan Air is also carrying smuggled goods to Syria without paying taxes or customs duties.
Last November, a hacking group calling itself ‘Vigilant sons of the homeland’ in Persian accused Mahan Air of closely linked with IRGC-QF and often issuing fake or falsified air tickets for people with false identities.
The group also alleged that Mahan was registering its interactions with IRGC-QF in one particular name, which appeared seven thousand times in the company’s records. “We’ve found Mahan does keep records of its suspicious business with QF under the name ‘Hamrah’, and that this business is managed by sardar (general) Golparast.”
The group added that Golparast is also listed as the owner of Qeshm Fars Air which “is a known QF cover company, frequently used to transport munitions throughout the Middle East,” the group said in November.
Israel is known to have conducted operations, including in Iran, to track and prevent IRGC-QF form transporting weapons to other countries.
Iran International reported July 21 that the Israeli Mossad had captured and interrogated an IRGC official inside Iran, about weapons transfers. The man was introducing himself as Yadollah Khedmati, deputy commander of the IRGC logistics and provided information to Mossad about weapons transfers before being freed.
IRGC’s wings for weapons transport
Mahan Air was fully under the control of IRGC-QF when Qasem Soleimani headed the extraterritorial military-intelligence unit. There were many reports about the airline’s role in weapons shipments. Soleimani was killed in a targeted US air strike in Baghdad in January 2020.
Amir Assadollahi a Mahan Air pilot revealed in June 2020 that on one occasion Soleimani in 2013 Soleimani was on a Mahan flight to Syria with 200 passengers and 7 tons of “banned cargo” that landed in Baghdad with orders of the Iraqi government. Soleimani instructed the pilot to bribe inspectors and was able to continue the flight to Syria.
Iran’s former foreign minister Javad Zarif in an audio recording leaked in 2021 had said that Soleimani preferred to use the official Iran Air flights for his purposes to reduce risk to his operations.
However, it seems that with continuing Israeli air strikes on Iranian arms depots in Syria, IRGC-QF prefers to use Mahan Air more often.
Israeli is usually silent about its attacks on Iranian targets in Syria but in recent months there have been repeated attacks on Iranian arms depots. The attack on the Damascus airport on June 10 was the 15th airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel.