Murky Azerbaijani Flights to Syria: Whistleblowing or Black PR?
Earlier this summer, the Bulgarian daily newspaper Trud published a sensational report, based on purportedly leaked files from the Azerbaijani Embassy in Sofia. Citing those leaked files, the Trud report alleged that Azerbaijan was abusing diplomatic immunity to engage in arms smuggling via the state-run Silk Way Airlines.
According to Trud’s account of the leaked files, Azerbaijan, at the behest of the United States and anyone who would pay, smuggled arms to militant groups in Syria and around the world by allegedly listing at least 350 Silk Way cargo flights as diplomatic missions.
Mainstream Azerbaijani press and the Azerbaijani government did not respond to the Trud report, but it was heavily covered by independent Azerbaijani media and in the Armenian press.
The allegations made in the Trud report returned to the headlines at the end of August, after its author, Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, claimed on social media she had been fired and interrogated by Bulgarian security services as a result of her reporting.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange weighed in on the story: “Pathetic firing of journalist who uncovered 350 Saudi ‘diplomatic’ flights of arms bound for Syrian insurgents,” Assange tweeted. The Russian state-run RT also covered the story, emphasizing the supposed role of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Subsequent developments seem to support at least some of the original allegations in the Trud report: the leaked documents indicate that more than 20 Silk Way flights could have carried arms from manufacturers in Central and Eastern Europe for Middle Eastern states on behalf of non-state actors fighting in Syria. If accurate, it would corroborate an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (BIRN/OCCRP) into the illicit arms trade between Europe and Syria. That report also implicated Silk Way.
For years, the Azerbaijani government has tried to avoid being pulled publicly into the war in Syria, in part out of a desire not to upset its strongly anti-Assad ally Turkey. At the same time, it appears that hundreds of Azerbaijani citizens, mostly from the country’s predominantly Sunni northern regions, have gone to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and other jihadi movements. Many presumably returned home, and officials in Baku frequently announce that they have killed alleged terrorists in Azerbaijan in security operations, usually with little corroborating information.
The byzantine nature of the Syrian Civil War ensures it is impossible to say it with certainty, but the leaks suggest that Azerbaijani planes may have carried arms that ended up in Syria.
Trud’s account of the leaks contains several unexplained errors, leading them to greatly inflate the number of alleged arms trafficking flights. The sheer volume of weapons flowing out of Eastern Europe makes it impossible to know which weapons end up in which hands, or whether any particular shipment was carried out with the knowledge or cooperation of NATO, or any Western state.
The periodical’s reporting of the leaks was based on the notion that “diplomatic clearance” forms, which the Azerbaijani Embassy in Sofia submitted to Bulgarian authorities on behalf of Silk Way, were requests to extend diplomatic immunity to the flights in question. However, per the Bulgarian governments’ official replies to the embassy’s requests – which were also included in the leaked files – and language on the website of the European Defense Agency and elsewhere, “diplomatic clearance” does not refer to the granting of diplomatic privileges or immunity. Instead, it can be a procedure by which states receive permission to transport military equipment across another’s airspace.
The report also suggests that Silk Way should be legally barred from transporting military cargo under (unspecified) laws, but as a well-established subcontractor to the US military since at least 2012, it has transported a large part of the NATO cargo bound for Afghanistan that passes through Baku.
As the majority of the flights documented in the leaked files are arms sales to Afghanistan and Iraq’s militaries, or transportation of NATO military equipment for missions in Afghanistan, it is unclear on what Trud bases its assertion that the documents reveal a “diplomatic flights for terrorists” program – apart from its mistaken interpretation of the diplomatic clearance forms.
An editor at Trud declined to answer questions regarding the content of the periodical’s report, but did say the paper stood by its story. Gaytandzhieva did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In an interview with a conspiracy-minded podcast given shortly after Trud published its report, Gaytandhieva and the hosts seemed less concerned with Silk Way’s role than in speculating about the possibility of a secret NATO plan to arm Islamic militants.
The controversy added another layer of mystery when the author claimed that she had been fired as a result of her reporting. In an email to EurasiaNet.org, Petyo Blaskov, Gaytandzhieva’s editor at Trud, denied that the author had been fired, or that the paper had faced pressure for its reporting.
Blaskov said Gaytandzhieva quit two months ago over his objections, but at his request agreed to give one month’s notice and accept one month’s paid leave, which resulted in her contract ending on August 24 – the same day the reporter claimed she had been interrogated by security agents. Blaskov added that no one at Trud had been notified of Gaytandzhieva’s alleged interrogation by Bulgarian authorities, and they had only learned about it after reading about it on the journalist’s Facebook page.
“I can’t give you a logical explanation on her claims on social media,” Blaskov said.
Gaytandzhieva has made largely unsubstantiated claims concerning Azerbaijan on Twitter. For example, she suggested that a recent arms depot explosion in the country was the result of actions taken by ethnic Lezgin separatists.
Bulgaria has faced significant criticism and pressure from Russia since it refused to allow Russian aid flights headed for Syria to use its airspace in September 2015. That denial was reportedly rooted in concerns that Russia was being less than honest in describing the planes’ cargo. Russia protested, and accused Bulgaria of facilitating the arming of Syrian rebels. In December 2016, Bulgarian prosecutors launched an investigation into the matter after Gaytandzhieva, who was then embedded with the Syrian army, uncovered a cache of weapons that were produced by a Bulgarian arms manufacturer.
Several flights mentioned in the leaked files occurred in 2017, meaning that neither the BIRN/OCCRP report nor the Bulgarian government investigation dissuaded the state from issuing export permissions and diplomatic clearance for suspect flights to the United Arab Emirates or to Saudi Arabia.
This may not be the last twist in this saga; Anonymous Bulgaria has begun teasing further leaks.