The Way to Damascus

Published on 23.04.2021
Reading time: 13 minutes

Travel agencies and tourism companies in Sweden continue offer trips to Syria, while cooperating with internationally sanctioned airliner Cham Wings.

Using private Syrian groups on social media, Loai Al-Ali (pseudonym) posts attractive offers for people who want to safely travel from Sweden to Syria on Cham Wings Airlines. The private Syrian airliner is banned by the United States, while its business and charter flights with allied airlines are prohibited in Europe.

Al-Ali provides detailed information regarding best prices, routes and travel dates, along with details regarding the outward journey to the Syrian capital Damascus via the Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut, where Syrian passenger flights from Sweden stop. From there people travel to Syria with Cham Wings or by bus.

Al-Ali also posts all documents required to complete the so-called “settlement procedure for Syrians wanted by security branches” or left the country illegally without officially crossing the country’s borders.

Travel agencies in several Swedish cities sell plane tickets, including for Cham Wings. They have reportedly been organizing and running flights from Sweden to Syria for years. They run via airports in intermediate countries allied with the Syrian regime, such as the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport and Beirut International Airport.

Our investigative team monitored eight travel agencies, working as an unofficial front for Cham Wings within Sweden. Our team has also tracked the flights for which they have been selling tickets.

The agencies not only promote Cham Wings, ensuring the company a source of income, but also offer guarantees. Any Syrian who wants to go back to Syria is guaranteed doing so and provided with all required transactions through the Take me To Syria service.

Recent data from Statistics Sweden indicate that there are over 200,000 Syrians residing in Sweden, which makes them the largest Arabic speaking community in the country. Their presence has resulted in many services being offered to them in Arabic. In addition, there are the travel agencies, which provide all services needed by those who want to go back to Syria.

Such services ensure an income for Cham Wings, which is prohibited from using European Union (EU) airports, according to European Commission Regulation No. 452/2014.

Our team, which has been working on this report for a year, found that eight agencies, in Jönköping, Södertälje and Stockholm, present themselves as official agent of Cham Wings. They refer to the company on posters (in Arabic) and social media.

However, Cham Wings is not permitted to carry out commercial air transport in or out of the EU under its Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC), the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) told Daraj.

(One of the offices presenting itself as an agent for Cham Wings Airlines in Jönköping, Sweden)

Cham Wings has been sanctioned by the US, yet EU sanctions do not include the airliner. However, the company is required to have a work permit to operate within the EU, along with an authorization from the EASA in Brussel, which according to the latter it has not obtained.

When searching databases of the Sweden Transport Agency (STA), no documents regarding the activities of Cham Wings, nor the presence of an official agent approved by the STA, could be found. An official reply from the latter confirmed it had not issued any work permit related to the company.

Khalid Terkawi, an economic adviser for Jusoor for Studies, said that the Syrian regime and the Central Bank of Syria benefit from such companies, as they generate at least 10% of the ticket price, which on average amounts to some 700 euros.

Cham Wings Airlines was founded in 2007 by Syrian businessmen Issam Shammout and Mohammad Alaa’ Shammout. Since December 2016, the company has been listed in the Syria Sanctions issued by the US Treasury Department, as it is considered an entity under control of the Syrian regime. Issam Shammout too was put under sanctions. The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions due to Cham Wings’ financial and logistic support for the Syrian regime, its militias and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

From an apartment in Södertälje, a suburb in the south of Stockholm, Nader Travel, one agency selling travel tickets to Syria, daily posts flight dates on its Facebook page. Nader himself at times goes to the airport to live stream interviews with people who traveled to Syria with his agency.

We contacted one of the agencies by phone, asking to buy a round trip ticket to Syria with Cham Wings for a woman who had illegally left Syria. The employee in charge of bookings offered a detailed presentation of the best dates and assured a safe passage for all travelers into Syria even if they had illegally left the country.

He added that those who had illegally left had the opportunity to travel from Stockholm Arlanda Airport to Beirut with a Lebanese airliner. From there, they would fly to Damascus via Qamishli with Cham Wings. He or she could also travel from Copenhagen or Stockholm to Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, and then fly with Cham Wings to Damascus via Qamishli.

Regarding payment, the agent replied: “You can pay in any way you find convenient, either by Swish (a mobile money transfer app used in Sweden), cash at the agency, or in any other appropriate way.”

Cham Wings runs direct flights from Damascus Airport to Beirut, Moscow and Yerevan, in addition to several Arab cities. With the continued suspension of flights to EU countries, Cham Wings on May 22, 2020, announced it was running flights from Syria to Germany and Sweden for Syrians with a residence permit in one of the two countries.

On its Facebook page, the company stated that it would run flights from Damascus to Frankfurt and Stockholm. It added, however, that booking these flights was only possible at the company office in Damascus or any of its agents’ offices around the world – not online.

 Flight tickets from Frankfurt to Yerevan and Damascus in partnership with Cham Wings

Rubber Boat

In August 2020, Dawood, a young Syrian in his thirties living in Sweden, left for Syria from Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport to spend what he called a “summer vacation.”

He booked his trip through a Cham Wings agent in Sweden, who provided him with a flight to Russia on an intermediate airliner, then from Russia to Lebanon on a Lebanese airliner, and then to Damascus.

Dawood said he paid the agency 6300 Swedish Krona (630 euros) for a round trip. “The office planned my entire trip all the way to Damascus,” he said.

Ghaith Diab (pseudonym) arrived with his family in Sweden in 2015. He had fled Syria via Egypt, crossed the Mediterranean by rubber boat, which dropped him in Italian territorial waters. The Italian Coast Guard accompanied them to the mainland, from where he planned his way to Sweden.

After getting his residence permit in Sweden, he had to go back to Syria to enable his sister to legally handle his accounts and real estate through a Power of Attorney. “To be honest, I did not imagine it to be that simple,” he said. “For a lump sum, I booked a round trip.”

Promotional Videos

One social media expert, who preferred not to reveal his name, said that, from monitoring and following the activities of the travel agencies on social media to attract possible customers, it appeared that they had a clear strategy to post and create content, and manage it long term.

For example, on a regular basis they post promotional videos, which contain encouraging messages for Syrians, particularly those living in Sweden, to return to Syria to spend the holiday or visit relatives. The videos include photos clearly taken at the airport’s departure lounge No 5.

The agencies offer guarantees for any Syrian, who wants to go back, to do so legally, regardless of the way he/she left the country, whether it was legally or by human trafficking.

The videos’ Arabic content also includes information on the related airlines for the trip through Moscow, Beirut or Yerevan, how to be transported to Damascus and how to leave Sweden without knowledge of the authorities.

The expert’s words matched those posted by Uno Bureau, which identifies itself as a Swedish tourism company based on Arlanda-Stockholm Airport since 2015. It focuses on services for Arabic immigrants in Scandinavian and nearby countries.

It offers tickets and trips to the Syrian capital, as well as the Take me To Syria package. In comparison, Nader Travel provides an extra attractive service, ensuring the home arrival of all those traveling to Syria from any point within the homeland.

Regime Profit

“From an economic perspective, the Syrian regime directly benefits financially from the arrival of Syrian visitors from Europe,” said Socrat Al-Allo, an expert in political economy and international relations. “Most of them are traders, who import goods from Syria for Syrians living in Europe, especially food products.”

According to him, these goods are taken back on the same trips or shipped with intermediate airlines, after obtaining fake certificates of origin to avoid penalties.

“Indirectly, the Syrian regime profits from Cham Wings continuing to work, as the company pays taxes and has the ability to maintain its staff,” he said. “The entry of expatriates to Syria, and their business, also provide the regime with income.”

The Legal, Financial and Administrative Services Agency (Kammarkollegiet) is in charge of registering travel agencies that provide booking services and travel plans. In case a trip is canceled or disturbed by the agency’s bankruptcy or insolvency, it offers guarantees to cover the traveler’s needs.

Our team received an official response from the Kammarkollegiet’s press liaison, who pointed out that these ticket selling agencies are obliged by law to plan and secure a safe trip. However, they failed to abide, which is considered a violation of the Swedish travel security act.

Having reviewed a list of registered agencies, our team found that none of the agencies are registered at the Kammarkollegiet. Also, neither Syria nor Cham Wings Airlines are mentioned by Swedavia, which owns, manages and develops the country’s primary airports, including Stockholm, which is considered the base for Cham Wings Airlines, through allied airlines, such as Wings of Lebanon.

“There is a direct benefit for the Syrian regime, as it receives 45.000 SYP ($15) for every Cham Wings Airlines ticket sold.,” said Dr. Karam Shaar, an economist and researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “This amount, along with transporting militants and arms to Syria, are two of the company’s benefits for the regime.”

Cham Wings periodically runs 11 international flights to airports in the region, as well as at least one flight a week to Moscow, from where travelers can complete their trips to other European cities. According to Shaar, the company pays the Syrian regime a percentage of the sale of each ticket. Estimated monthly income for the regime: some $50,000.

It has been previously reported that Cham Wings Airlines was used as a secret airlift for Russian military contractors going to Syria and assisted in transporting arms, equipment and mercenaries for the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate.

According to Khalid Terkawi, an economic adviser for Jusoor for Studies, Cham Wings finances part of the Syrian regime’s operations by transporting people and creating a network between Syria and other countries. The airline can also transport everything the regime needs without restrictions, even banned goods.

“These companies help finance the Central Bank of Syria through the foreign currency it brings into Syria,” he added.

Tax Evasion?

In Sweden, when starting an individual business, a person must register with the tax agency and obtain approval for the so called F-tax. However, in case of an anonymous joint stock company, he or she must register with the Financial Supervisory Authority. In Sweden, corporate law allows individuals to establish and manage companies. But if one wants to sell goods or services, one must also be registered for VAT. VAT must be reported monthly, quarterly or annually, according to the Swedish Tax Agency.

Payments done via Swish are divided into two types. The first is for companies. They receive a Swish number starting with 123 after registration to start receiving funds. They can check payments through their bank accounts.

The second is for individuals. Anyone living in Sweden with a bank account can activate Swish on their mobile phone, through which they can quickly and safely receive money, getting the amount directly transferred to their bank accounts. Could it be these offices evade taxes by using personal Swish instead of the corporate one?

“Obviously, we are not able to check every company all the time, but we play a significant role” replied Conny Svensson, a coordinator at Sweden’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), by email. Svensson mainly works in the field of unreported income.

Asked about the tourist agencies, he pointed out that the IRS yearly carries out a large number of checks on Swedish companies. “We have a violation reporting section, where people can report and notify us of any suspected violations,” he said. “We are directing our efforts toward different industries, whenever we see a need.”

When researching the database of the Sweden Transport Agency, no recorded activity documentation for Cham Wings Airlines or the presence of an official agent could be found. We have also received an official reply from the agency confirming it never not issued a work permit for the company.

We also contacted EASA, the EU agency in charge of civil aviation, which includes issuing licenses and certificates and surveillance. It denied it ever issued a permit for Cham Wings to use EU airports and run commercial flights to and from Syria.

When asked about the penalties regarding unreported income, Svensson said a company could be obliged to pay 40 percent of the unreported taxes as a penalty, along with the actual taxes.

“Big violations may also be considered criminal,” he continued. “When suspecting tax violations, evasion or attempts to obstruct tax control, we report it to the Swedish Economic Crime Authority. When proven, the penalty could range from a fine to 6 years imprisonment. In addition, people would be prohibited from running the business.”

“We do our best based with the available resources,” said Svensson. “However, it is a bit difficult for us to detect shortcomings and start investigations, if we did not receive accurate information.”

Gone with the Wind

After the Syrian regime took back control over Aleppo following a two-year siege, some Syrian immigrants returned to the city, despite fighting continued in such nearby cities as Idlib.

We reached out to Mahmoud, a young Syrian refugee living in Sweden, who went back to Aleppo for a visit. “I know the war is still on, but I simply have to go back to my family,” he said by phone from the Lebanese border hours before entering Syria.

“I used a WhatsApp number I got from a person who recommended a Cham Wings agent in Sweden to plan my trip to Syria” he said. “The agent asked me to transfer 10,000 Swedish Krona (1,000 Euros) to the number. I did not receive a receipt or confirmation of transfer. It was simply a verbal contract, stating that the value concerns a round trip to first Beirut and then Aleppo, including all transactions concerning border officials, as I illegally left through the Syrian-Turkish border in 2013.”

That was in November 2019. We have not been able to get in touch with Mahmoud since.

Our team got in touch with some of the travel agencies in Sweden and confronted them with evidence and documentation, but did not receive any response. We also contacted Cham Wings by email. Yet, after requesting more information on our team and report, the firm stopped responding.

Our team asked Annica Dahlkvist, Public Information Officer at the Swedish Migration Agency, about the legality of Syrians living in Sweden with a refugee status traveling to Syria.

“That is quite complicated,” she replied. “It depends on the legal status a person was given. Hence, we cannot discuss the situation of individual people and whether their visit to Syria affects their status in Sweden, especially if they live here. That requires obtaining an official attorney to access their personal information, as this information is confidential and cannot be disclosed.”

This report was made possible with the support of Money Trail Grants under the supervision of Nils Hanson, former head of the Swedish TV program Mission Investigate and Fouad Youcefi, a reporter at the Swedish foreign news desk.

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Published on 23.04.2021
Reading time: 13 minutes

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