In the heart of the Middle East, an almost decade-long civil conflict in Syria has reduced the country to a war zone. The war has been fought in towns and on the streets. Syrian families have struggled without basic necessities, food, shelter and medical care. More than 465,000 Syrians have been killed, and a further 1 million have been injured.
Now, in early 2019 — eight years since the beginning of the war, Syria has seen signs of optimism in recent months. The country’s minister of culture claimed that “Damascus has recovered” upon the recent reopening of Syria’s National Museum.
As many perceive the war in Syria to be to its final stages, the future of the country hangs in the balance. In the U.S, the Trump administration announced all U.S. troops will withdraw from Syria immediately. President Trump said the troops had “accomplished their mission in Syria” by defeating the Islamic State. Around the same time as Trump’s announcement, a Jordanian policeman opened the gate of Jordan’s Jaber border crossing checkpoint near Syria’s Nasib checkpoint, in what was the official opening of the border after being closed for over three years.
Years worth of war-torn media coverage of Syria has overshadowed recent history. It wasn’t long ago that European carriers were operating to a country they perceived as a key Middle Eastern market, rich in history, culture, and geographically positioned at the centre of the world. Syria’s capital Damascus claims to be the oldest constantly inhabited city in the world, and Aeroflot, Air France, Air Malta, Alitalia, Austrian, Czech Airlines and Iberia are just some of the flag carriers that were operating to the city, but forced to withdraw as the conflict started.
Across all Syrian airports, the most prominent country markets were the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Iran collectively held the remaining amount of the overall market share, with various frequencies to Damascus, as well as to Aleppo and Latakia.
In 2010, Damascus Airport scheduled around 400 weekly departures to over 50 international destinations. In the year prior to the civil war, the airport handled around 4.5 million passengers — and up until the war, was demonstrating promising year-on-year growth.
With stabilisation back on the horizon, airlines are wasting no time in preparing to make their move back into the Syrian market, with both previous operators and newcomers expected to announce nonstop flights to the country.
I sat down with the CEO of Royal Jordanian, Stefan Pichler, at the airlines’ headquarters in Amman, Jordan. “We want to fly to Syria, it’s a very important market for us” he told me, as we glanced over photos of Royal Jordanian jets parked at Damascus airport. Royal Jordanian operated daily scheduled flights between Amman and both Damascus, and Aleppo. The flag carrier airline was one of the last to withdraw, in mid-2012.
In the Gulf, Bahrain’s Gulf Air has expressed interest in resuming flights to Syria “as soon as this year”, while United Arab Emirates carriers Etihad Airways and FlyDubai have requested to be briefed on the technical status of Damascus airport, as they determine the viability of once again linking the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the Syrian capital.
But while the UAE was the largest air travel market for Syria pre-war, it’s another Gulf state that’s ahead in the race to Damascus in 2019: the Sultanate of Oman. In what is an Aviation Analyst exclusive, Oman Air is the first airline to have been given the green light in relation to launching flights to Syria, and the Omani flag carrier is now recruiting for a range of airport staff at Damascus airport. It’s worth highlighting that of the twelve largest air travel markets for Syria before the war, Oman was not one of them — in fact, Oman and Syria had very little aviation links.
Also hoping to tap into the expected Syria-bound demand is Oman Air’s low-cost carrier competitor, SalamAir. In an exclusive conversation with the airlines’ CEO, Mohammed Ahmed, Ahmed told Aviation Analyst that the young, budget airline is working to launch a Muscat-Damascus route. “We had a team visit Damascus in order to obtain a more detailed risk assessment. We’re hopeful that once we receive the green light from the authorities, and the situation is deemed stable, we will launch the route” he explained. “I’m confident there be stability in Syria very soon, and also hopeful Yemen could stabilise over the coming years,” Ahmed added.
While these airlines are actively preparing to establish a presence in the Syrian market, some United Nations officials warn the civil war could be far from over. Despite early positive signs, Western countries like the United Kingdom are still advising against all travel to Syria. “British nationals in Syria should leave by any practical means. Consular support is not available in Syria” the government states. In fact, some foreign governments predict the war in Syria could grow stronger and more violent in the months ahead — only time will tell.
If indeed the airlines are given the authority to resume flights to Syria, its airport is in need of vital infrastructure updates — and this hasn’t gone by unnoticed. Russian investors from an airport construction firm are already considering renovating Damascus Airport. Last week, Syrian Transport Minister Ali Hamud held a meeting with a Russian delegation, in order to discuss plans to build a new international terminal which would have a capacity of up to 15 million passengers per year. Currently, Damascus airport has a capacity of five million passengers annually — with nearly all of its capacity unused, given the lack of airlines present since the war.
For now, the country and its airspace continue to remain off-limits to most of the world. The US Department of Travel specifically warns US citizens not to fly on an airline that travels through Syrian airspace, and IATA (The International Air Transport Association), EASA (European Aviation Saftey Agency), among other regulators have warned airlines against flying over Syria, even at heights of 38,0000ft.
At present, Lebanon’s flag carrier, Middle East Airlines, is the only non-Syrian/non-Iraqi carrier still flying over Syria — but the airline does not land anywhere in the country.
Unlike every other foreign airline, the national carrier of Lebanon routinely flies over Syria on nearly all of its eastbound routes, including between Lebanon and Dubai, (where a detour would add an extra 25 minutes in flying time).
If Syria was deemed safe for airline operators, it’s expected more airlines will follow Middle East Airlines in overflying Syrian territory — saving on the extra fuel currently needed for Syrian overflight avoidance.
While stability isn’t by any means guaranteed for Syria’s immediate future, the airlines are certain we are the closest today to a reopening of the Syrian market as we have been for over seven years.
In a bid to secure the initial demand, Oman is currently leading the way in securing its route to Damascus, with other Gulf countries very closely behind. Each airline is exercising caution, given the nature of the Syrian civil war, but the overall feeling is positive: Syria will soon reappear on the airline route network map.