Georgia has barred two Syrian airlines from accessing its airspace, one of which was revealed to have been transporting private Russian military contractors to take part in the Syrian conflict last month.
“I can confirm that Georgia’s airspace is closed for two Syrian air companies: Syrian Air and Cham Wings,” Gocha Mezvrishvili, head of the ex-Soviet country’s Air Navigation Service, said late on Tuesday.
These two are the only airlines operating direct flights between Syria and Russia. Civilian flights between the two countries had been passing through Georgia because Turkey, the most direct route, denies Syrian aircraft overflight rights.
According to Mezvrishvili, the move was prompted by Damascus recognising two Georgian breakaway regions last month, Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
A Reuters report earlier this year found that Cham Wings charter flights from the Russian city of Rostov to Syria were transporting private military contractors to fight alongside President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces.
Working as a foreign mercenary is illegal under Russian law. The Kremlin says any private contractors in Syria are nothing to do with the Russian authorities, but upon arrival in Rostov, busloads of men travel onwards to a Russian defence ministry base.
Russian mercenaries are known to have been participating in the Syrian conflict since 2015, when local media reported that former Special Forces officer Dmitry Utkin had been recruiting ex-soldiers to participate in the shadowy “Wagner” group, that experts estimate includes some 2,500 people. Family members of foreign fighters have also confirmed the existence of such groups, which attracted former soldiers with promises of high pay.
Russia has also utilised its presence in Syria to train its national troops with President Putin remarking in a television interview last week that attacking opposition groups in Syria was better than dealing with alleged extremists at home.
Earlier this month it was also reported that Russian fighters who served in Syria and Ukraine would be providing security for the World Cup.
“For FIFA [International Federation of Association Football], these groups’ involvement represents an outrageous betrayal of the organisation’s charter,” US Congressman Eliot L. Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters at the time.