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Flying a War Torn Flag: Syrian Aviation Faces the Civil War

Damascus International Airport, seen in 2007 (Photo: Bangin (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

For years, Middle Eastern air carriers have been impacted by various conflicts in the region. However, some of the greatest impact is felt in the war-torn country of Syria. Syrian aviation has been confronted with the complicated issue of how to continue air carrier service while the Syrian Civil War is still waging, now for over six years. Despite the bloodshed and lack of a clear political structure, some carriers continue to operate and fly the Syrian flag.

A Strong South

Most flying in and out of Syria happens in the nation’s capital of Damascus. The southern city has dodged many of the conflicts as President Bashar al-Assad quickly stabilized the capital city by driving out the rebels early in the war.

As a result, Damascus International Airport operates as intended, but airlines operate a more limited schedule than normal. Sanctions placed on Syria prevent their carriers from buying new American or European aircraft, as well as operating any flights into American or European airspace. The airport is currently served by five airlines: FlyDamas, Iran Air, Mahan Air, Cham Wings Airlines, and Syrian Air.

Flying Through Conflict

The largest operator at Damascus Airport is the government-backed Syrian Air. The airline operates flights domestically to Latakia and Qamishli, and internationally to nearby countries like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Iraq, Sudan, and Russia. The airline had modernized its fleet prior to the war, resulting in Syrian Air operating a fleet of Airbus A320s, Airbus A340s and ATR 72s. Syrian Air also operates a focus city in Latakia, with service to 11 destinations across the Middle East and Russia.

While the government-backed carrier has continued to provide service throughout the war, they are not alone, as two privately-funded airlines have also managed to stay afloat during the conflict.

The first airline to start operations during the war was Cham Wings Airlines, which currently flies a two-aircraft fleet of Airbus A320s, servicing destinations throughout Syria, North Africa, the Middle East and Pakistan.

The other private carrier, which started service in 2015, is FlyDamas, operating a single Boeing 737-300 from Damascus to Iraq, Sudan, and Kuwait. Another carrier, Kinda Airlines, was supposed to begin service in 2013, and even managed to obtain an operating certificate, but collapsed before starting service.

While the majority of international carriers cancelled service at the start of the Syrian Civil War, a select few still operate flights into the country. Two Iranian airlines, Iran Air and Mahan Air, both provide service from Damascus to Tehran. While no other international carriers operate service to Damascus, UM Airlines of Ukraine operates flights to the coastal town of Latakia from Kiev.

Fragmented Service

While Damascus has managed to see service operate as usual, cities in the heart of the conflict are not so fortunate. Flights to Qamishli were re-established with help from the Russian military, which operate out of the airport at Nusaybin. However, Qamishli is in the heart of the conflict, with the independent group of Rojava holding the land outside of the city limits. The airport is also the closest operating airport to the ISIS-controlled lands in the east, with the city only 90 miles from ISIS territory.

While Qamishli was able to restart service despite its proximity to ISIS, service to Palmyra has not restarted due to the nearby ISIS threat. The Syrian city was captured by the Islamic State in summer 2015 when the group made a push towards Damascus. However, President al-Assad’s forces managed to drive the organization’s push back, then re-took the city with the Palmyra offense in March 2017.

Another airport that has seen more than its fair-share of conflict is Aleppo. The northern Syrian city was originally captured by the Syrian Arab Republic in 2012, as the group planned to make Aleppo their base of operations. Due to the city falling under the opposition’s control, the government-backed Syrian Air suspended service to the city and the airport lost all flights.

The fighting in Aleppo has been well documented, as President al-Assad’s forces have tried for many years to regain control of the local area. The warfare in the city took over four and a half years to settle, with the Syrian government taking control of the severely damaged city in December 2016.

With the Syrian Arab Republic forces driven from the city, Syrian Air ran a few test flights to Aleppo in early 2017, as the airline wants to restart service to Moscow-Vnokovo and Damascus as soon as possible. Although the Syrian Arab Republic was driven from Aleppo, their ability to restart conflict in the city remains a threat, with forces only 10 miles west of the city center.

The Future of Flying in Syria

While flying into Syria doesn’t sound pleasing to many, there are people in Syria who still want or need to fly. The ability for Syrian Air, Cham Wings Airlines, and FlyDamas to start and maintain operations while the country continues to sort out its political issues is a great relief to those who still want to travel in order to visit family or escape their country’s current state.

Nobody knows how long this bloody civil war will go on for, or who will end up in control at the end. However, brave pilots, flight attendants and other employees continue to operate these flights through their nation’s uncertainty.

Ian McMurtry


  • Ian McMurtry

    Although Ian McMurtry was never originally an avgeek, he did enjoy watching US Airways aircraft across western Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. He lived along the Pennsylvania Railroad and took a liking to trains but a change of scenery in the mid-2000s saw him shift more of an interest into aviation. He would eventually express this passion by taking flying lessons in mid-Missouri and joining AirlineGeeks in 2013. Now living in Wichita, Kansas, Ian is in college majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in business administration at Wichita State University.

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