Tourism 'without limits’: Syrian airline claims it’s starting new Damascus-Berlin flights

The German aviation authority said it had received 'no applications for entry' from Cham Wings

Syrian airline. Cham Wings aircraft in Russia. Credit: Mak K
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The privately owned Syrian airline Cham Wings has announced plans to begin operating flights to Berlin this month, even though German aviation authorities say they have received no request for the permissions needed to do so.

One of three airlines in Syria, Cham Wings started operations in 2007 and already flies to destinations around the Middle East including Beirut and several Gulf states, according to the company’s website. The Cham Wings slogan promises passengers “travel without limits”.

Cham Wings said twice-weekly flights to Berlin would begin in mid-December, before opening another route next year to Dusseldorf, which will run once a week.

The airline's website lists direct and indirect destinations - Berlin flights will be indirect. Cham Wings also flies indirect to destinations in China and South East Asia, for example.

Still, the announcement rings strange for a company hit by US sanctions in 2016 for allegedly helping transport pro-government fighters and assisting Syrian intelligence with logistics. The airline is not currently under EU sanctions.

Cham Wings’ chairman, Issam Shammout, is a known regime insider alleged to have links to Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad who for years lorded over the Syrian economy through monopolies over telecommunications and other sectors. Mr Makhlouf was recently ousted from much of his business activity in a palace coup that government supporters have presented as an anti-corruption drive.

Syria’s Transport Ministry announced on Friday that the assets of Shammout and another Cham Wings owner have been frozen, according to a post on the ministry's Facebook page.

The airline accepts payments by transfers via an exchange house, and it's not possible to buy tickets directly online - likely an attempt to circumvent the impact of sanctions.

Roger Phillips, legal director with the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, told The National on Friday that "Syrian airlines are going to find any opportunity to circumvent the sanctions."

“It’s a matter of financial benefit but also presenting themselves as being part of the international community so…it’s symbolic as well.”

A spokesperson for the German aviation authority, the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt (LBA), told The National last week that the body was not aware of Cham Wings and had received "no applications for entry" from the company. Airlines need these landing permissions in order to legally land charters in a country.

I keep asking myself, how dare they visit a country that has the worst news these days?

A list of airlines with landing permissions in Germany, updated by the LBA late last month, includes no Syrian airlines - suggesting that Cham Wings will instead fly passengers between Damascus and Beirut, and use a partner airline between Beirut and German destinations.

In the tile-floored Middle Eastern travel agencies that dot Berlin’s Sonnenallee, a busy hub of Levantine restaurants and businesses that is known locally as the “Arab Street”, there is still little information available for would-be passengers.

Inside one shop with a Cham Wings poster in the window, a travel agent said that the Lebanese airline Wings of Lebanon would be handling the Beirut-Berlin leg offered in Cham Wings’ new package.

According to Wings of Lebanon’s website, the airline started twice-weekly flights between the two cities late last month, and will launch a once-weekly flight linking Beirut and Dusseldorf in January - the same timeline mentioned in Cham Wings’ statement.

A Wings of Lebanon spokesperson told The National that the airline "does not have a formal agreement with Cham Wings" but that "travel agencies may be linking passengers on both airlines".

Either way, the Cham Wings announcement comes as Syria increasingly attempts to present itself as a country transitioning from war to peace. The country's tattered tourism sector has become yet another front in the effort to rehabilitate the Syrian government in the eyes of the international community.

More and more tourists are travelling to government-held Syria, government statistics show. The country's Ministry of Tourism said 1.5 million people visited the country between the beginning of the year and August.

But Syria is not your ordinary destination. While the Syrian government says the war is over in Damascus, after retaking the last rebel-held pockets of the city last summer, pro-government forces are still waging a bloody aerial and ground campaign in the northwestern province of Idlib in which dozens of civilians die each week.

A recent Turkey-led incursion into northeastern Syria also shows that the situation across the country is unpredictable and far from stable.

Some travellers may go for the social kudos of travelling to a country still regarded as unsafe by many, or to experience places for so long closed-off by war. Other visitors include delegations from European far-right parties, keen to show that the country is safe for Syrian refugees to return home – in November, the hard-right Alternative for Germany Party visited Damascus to do just that.

But in recent months, travel bloggers from western countries have descended on the Syrian capital in bigger numbers as well.

Many go to experience the centuries-old markets, architecture and world-renowned cuisine that used to attract huge numbers of foreigners to Syria each year before the war.

But others have gone further.

At first look, the Syrian videos of travel blogger Drew Binsky appear innocent enough - like many of the other recent visitors, he’s seen milling around the souqs of Damascus’ Old City, buying trinkets emblazoned with the Syrian flag and sampling local food. Everyone is so friendly, he keeps saying, as he helps himself to sweets at a market stall.

However, the travel blogger goes further than other recent visitors - both in terms of the image of Syria he presents and the people he actually meets.

“Damascus is just about as safe and peaceful as any city can be,” he says, in a voiceover in his first video from the Syrian capital. “We all know that it’s gone through stages of misery during the war, but the past is the past, and they’ve moved on.”

In another, Binsky sits down with a former mayor in a Christian-majority town between Homs and Damascus. The mayor says he's affiliated with the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, a fascist-inspired political party and militia that fights alongside the Syrian government, and talks about the local fight against terrorist groups during the war.

In one shot of the video, members of French aid organisation SOS Chretiens d’Orient can be seen in the background - although Binsky does not identify them as such. Both the SSNP and SOS are known to have organised visits to Syria on behalf of politicians from Europe and the US, including far-right parties.

Binsky could not be reached for comment before publication.

Aiham, who did not want to share his full name, originally from Damascus, studied tourism at university and later worked as specialist in tourism in the city.

He told The National he feels angry seeing visits by "anonymous people who want some attention or right-wing fanatics who want to say, 'The situation in Syria is fine, so let's send the Syrians back'."

“I keep asking myself, how dare they visit a country that has the worst news these days?” he said. “I just can't trust the motives of these visitors.

“I cannot see these as touristic visits. Even in this, there's politics.”