Moscow is supplying Damascus with weapons under existing contracts and for defense against external aggression, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday according to the Russian-language ITARTASS news agency.

“Military cooperation [between Russia and Syria] is not something that started today, and that military cooperation has always been conducted completely legally, in fact, in an open manner. We have never delivered anything to the incumbent president’s regime that would not comply with international conventions,” ITAR TASS quoted Medvedev as saying.

Medvedev said the weapons Russia provides to Syria are intended for “defense against external aggression.”

“We have contracts that we are obliged to fulfill,” Medvedev said, adding that Russia is neutral and does not support the Assad regime or Syria’s opposition forces.

Medvedev made his comments in an interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper ahead of a visit to Paris and published by the Kremlin press service. His remarks echoed those of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who told Egyptian daily Al- Ahram last month that arms sent to Damascus were part of old Soviet contracts and did not violate international law.

“We do not side with any faction in Syria’s internal battle,” Lavrov told Al-Ahram.

However, Russia’s supplying weapons to Bashar Assad’s regime has drawn Moscow into the escalating tensions between Syria and its neighbor Turkey.

Last Thursday, Moscow criticized a Turkish request to NATO to deploy Patriot missile air defense systems on its border with Syria.

Lavrov warned that “any militarization on the Turkish- Syrian border may lead to an uncontrollable turn of events.”

Russia’s reaction came amid already heightened tensions between Moscow and Ankara over Syria, after Turkish Air Force F-16 jets intercepted a Syrian Air civilian plane en route from Moscow to Damascus last month.

The Turkish authorities forced the plane to land in Ankara but later allowed it to continue after removing its cargo.

Turkey said the cargo had included munitions destined for the Syrian Defense Ministry, as well as boxes containing parts for radar location systems, which can have military applications, according to the Russian-language Kommersant daily.

Russia denied that the plane was carrying weapons, but Kommersant reported that the cargo originated from a state-owned company, KBP Tula, which exports munitions including antitank and antiaircraft missile systems.

Last week, KBP’s deputy manager Vyacheslav Trukhachev was shot dead in a contract-style killing in Tula. No group has claimed responsibility for the assassination, but Syrian rebels have previously warned that Russia could be targeted for retaliations for supplying weapons to Assad.

Following its interception of the Syrian plane in October, Turkey banned Syrian aircraft from its airspace, the BBC reported.

In the wake of the ban, Syrian Air altered its flight path for the Moscow-Damascus route, flying south over Volgograd and passing over Azerbaijan and Iran to avoid Turkey, Russia’s Kommersant reported.

The altered flight path via Iranian airspace indicates that Tehran, Syria’s greatest regional ally, is helping Syria bypass Turkish airspace to allow it to transport cargoes from Russia.

In a report published Monday, US-based investigative journalism project ProPublica said they had obtained Syrian ministry cables and flight documents showing that Russia had sent 240 tons of banknotes to Syria this year in flights that passed through Iranian airspace.

The documents, released by ProPublica and read by The Jerusalem Post, consist of eight cables in Arabic sent by Syria’s Foreign Ministry to the Syrian Embassy in Tehran between July 9 and September 15, requesting local staff to ask the Iranian authorities’ permission for Syrian air flights to traverse Iranian airspace for round-trip flights from Damascus to Moscow.

The flight route shown on the documents passes over Syria, Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan before entering Russian airspace. Syrian Air passenger flights from Damascus to Moscow normally pass over Turkey. By passing over Iran, the Syrian cargo flights would avoid entering Turkish airspace.

Attached to each of the ministry cables are manifests in Persian and English detailing the flights, which are all listed as round-trip civil flights on Syrian Air Ilyushin Il-76 cargo planes. Each flight aimed to collect 30 tons of banknotes from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport and transport them back to Damascus.

Syrian and Russian officials did not respond to questions about the authenticity and accuracy of the flight records and it is not possible to know whether the logs accurately described the cargo, ProPublica said.

However, ProPublica said they had confirmed that nearly all the flights took place through international plane tracking services, photos by aviation enthusiasts and air traffic control recordings.

While ProPublica’s documents do not specify any details about the denomination of the banknotes picked up in Moscow, Russia does not hide the fact that it has recently started to print currency for Syria.

An Austrian company, Oesterreichische Banknotenund Sicherheitsdruck, used to print Syria’s banknotes but pulled out of the country due to international pressure.

In June, Russia’s InterFax news agency reported that Syria had asked Russia’s state-owned enterprise Goznak company, which operates Russia’s mint and which also prints currency for foreign states, to print new banknotes.

Reuters also reported that Syria was using the banknotes to ensure that over 2 million state employees’ salaries and other government expenses were being paid, though Syria’s central bank later denied that it had circulated new currency printed in Russia.

Goznak’s general director Arkady V. Trachuk confirmed in an interview with the Russian-language Rossiskaya Gazetan (RG) this week that his organization had fulfilled an contract to print Syrian banknotes.“A few years ago, Syria ordered its banknotes printed in Austria. But because of the EU sanctions, that [Austrian] company turned down the contract. So Syria turned to us,” Trachuk told RG.

Trachuk did not specify when the banknotes had been printed or when they had been transported to Syria.

Russia’s national airline, Aeroflot, suspended its flights on the Damascus-Moscow route in August, so it would not be an option for Goznak to have transported any consignment of banknotes it printed for Syria using that carrier after that date.

A query by the Post to Goznak asking whether Syrian Air is involved in transporting consignments of banknotes to Damascus was not answered by press time.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger