Two Syrian airlines have been denied access to Georgian airspace in retaliation for Damascus’s recognition of breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia last month. Syria's government announced the move in May as a gesture of gratitude for Russia’s military support in its civil war.
Syrian airline companies Syria Air and Cham Wings are no longer routing flights over Georgia, diverting their journeys over neighboring Azerbaijan instead, Georgian officials announced. One of the companies, Cham Wings, has allegedly been transporting Russian mercenaries to the Syrian front, according to a Reuters investigation.
“I can confirm that Georgia’s airspace is closed for two Syrian air companies: Syrian Air and Cham Wings,” Gocha Mezvrishvili, the head of Georgia’s Air Navigation Service, told Reuters. “We made this decision after Syria recognized our occupied regions.”
Georgia moved to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus last month after the Arab state supported its Russian ally in recognizing the breakaway republics as independent states.
“Recognition of the independence of the historic regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali [South Ossetia], by the Russian-manipulated [Bashar al-] Assad regime in Syria is another blatant violation of [international] law by Assad and should be condemned by the [international] community,” Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze responded.
The European Union supported Georgia, saying Syria’s decision “violates international law and the principle of territorial integrity as defined by the United Nations Charter and relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”
Syria’s ruling regime said the gesture was intended as an act of solidarity with Russia following Moscow’s “assistance against terrorist aggression.” Russia has been involved in the conflict since 2015, swinging the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.
The decision to close Georgian airspace was taken by Mezvirishvili, who applied to the air traffic governing body (European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation) to re-route Cham Wings and Syrian Air flights.
Both airlines have been flying over Georgia after Turkey had earlier closed its airspace to Syrian flights. They are the only two carriers to operate direct flights between Russia and Syria and have announced that they intend now to fly over Azerbaijan, which will add 30 minutes to their routes.
Last month, Reuters revealed that Wagner, a Russian private military contractor, has been using Cham Wings's charter flights to transport soldiers to the conflict.
According to Russian law, private militias are illegal. Kremlin officials deny having links to Wagner, a company that has deployed an estimated 2,500 troops.
The Syrian conflict has also had knock-on effects for Georgia, whose security services were involved in a deadly firefight with Islamic State operatives in November 2017.
Following a war between Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russia in 2008, Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. It has managed to convince only a handful of others to follow its lead: Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and now Syria.
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.