Skip to main content

United Nations used sanctioned Syrian airliner to transport aid to Libya

Cham Wings accused of ferrying mercenaries and aiding Iran's Revolutionary Guard, but the UN tells MEE 'the options for air freight delivery into Libya are minimal'
Image posted by the World Health Organisation in Libya showed humanitarian aid being offloaded from a Cham Wings flight in Benghazi (Twitter)

The United Nations has confirmed to Middle East Eye that it used a US-sanctioned Syrian airline accused of ferrying fighters and weapons on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and Khalifa Haftar transport aid to Libya. 

Images posted on Twitter by the UN's World Health Organisation on Monday showed officials offloading humanitarian aid from a Cham Wings flight to Benina International Airport in Benghazi. 

'Due to the situation on the ground, the options for air freight delivery into Libya are minimal'

- World Food Programme

In 2016, the US Treasury placed sanctions on Cham Wings for cooperating "with Government of Syria officials to transport militants to Syria to fight on behalf of the Syrian regime and assisted the previously-designated Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) in moving weapons and equipment for the Syrian regime".

The Treasury said the airline acted on behalf of the Quds Force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' overseas unit that has played a major role in propping up Assad in the Syrian civil war.

"Cham Wings’s Damascus-to-Dubai flight was one of the main routes SMI used to launder money throughout the region, with SMI paying all parties involved to ensure they would continue to do business with the Assad regime," the Treasury said.

A spokesperson from the World Food Programme (WFP), which deals with the UN agencies' Covid-19 response, told MEE that it used the airline to transport 16 metric tonnes of aid from the UAE to Libya. 

"Due to the situation on the ground, the options for air freight delivery into Libya are minimal, and in this case, the WHO medical cargo was transported by the air carrier Chams Wings, which is not subject to United Nations sanctions," the WFP spokesperson said. 

Based in Damascus, Cham Wings Airline is majority-owned by Syrian businessman Issam Shammout, who has been accused of using a front company in Dubai to help facilitate the illegal sale of aircraft to the Iranian-based Mahan Air. 

Though the airline is not sanctioned by the United Nations, a UN panel of experts identified last year that between 1 January and 10 March, there were at least 33 Cham Wings flights from Damascus to Benghazi, likely carrying Syrian mercenaries in contravention of an international arms ban on Libya.

The flights came at the height of eastern commander Haftar's failed assault on Tripoli, during which he employed Russian and Sudanese mercenaries, as well as pro-Assad militiamen.

Hanan Salah, a senior Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch, criticised the UN for breaking its own guidelines by using Cham Wings. 

"United Nations organizations should not- by their own guidelines- assist actors that have a documented history of facilitating abuse when that risks their own complicity," Salah told MEE. 

"They should examine closely any alleged involvement of airlines in assisting the Syrian government’s intelligence services, or the forces of Khalifa Haftar, [who also have a long record of abuses].”