On July 15 , 2009, a Caspian Airlines Tu-154 took off from Tehran en route for Yerevan. On board were 153 passengers and 15 crew. The flight was scheduled to take less than an hour.
Just 16 minutes after take-off, some 150 kilometres from the Iranian capital, the plane suffered a catastrophic mid-air failure.463 Debris ploughed into farmland below, near the north-western city of Qazvin. The plane “disintegrated into pieces,” said Colonel Masood Jafari Nasab, security commander in Qazvin on CNN.464 “The aircraft all of a sudden fell out of the sky and exploded on impact, where you see the crater,” a witness told Press TV from the crash site.465
Among the dead were eight members of Iran’s national junior judo team,466 a former Iranian MP and diplomats.467 Several sources reported that there were officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on board the doomed airliner, but their names were not on the passenger manifest.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed his sympathy to the deceased and their families.468 Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan signed a decree declaring a Day of Mourning in Armenia.469
The leaders of both nations made the correct noises, but almost immediately investigations into the crash began to go awry. The aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were found to be damaged.470,471 Iranian officials initially blamed the crash on technical reasons. Then a bird strike.472
In the wake of the disaster, the site, near the village of Jannatabad, was cordoned off. Nothing unusual in that.
What was is that jurisdiction for this civilian ‘accident’ quickly transferred to the Revolutionary Guard Aerospace Force. Guardsmen secured the crash site.
The standard civilian response to civilian accidents was muted. Just enough to deal with International Civil Aviation Organisation requirements.
In Yerevan, Sargsyan ordered a probe.473 This would run for more than five years and the full contents of the report would not be released. Instead, on December 23rd, 2014, a truncated chronology of events was published. This lack of transparency further muddied the waters.
There was an alternative version of events already circulating.474 Italy’s heavyweight Corriere della Sera newspaper broke the story of anomalies in the flight’s cargo manifest.475 The Tehran-Yerevan plane crash occurred, said Corriere della Sera’s reporting team, due to an explosion caused by ammunitions that were being sent via Yerevan, and destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.476 In attempting to bypass United Nations sanctions, the Tehran-Yerevan-Beirut route had become significant.
Another publication was even more specific, stating that the disaster was:
...caused by an explosion in the baggage compartment of the aircraft... according to experts, the detonators were very small – weighing no more than two grams – but extremely powerful. They had been sent by the Revolution Guard.477
The Flight 7908 affair became a talking point in Israel and caused considerable concern. Political columnist and former advisor to Tel Aviv’s Minister of Internal Security, Alex Veksler, commented on the Israeli Russian-language channel Israel Plus: Iran has decided to open a new route through Yerevan, in view of the improvement in relations between Syria and Armenia, as well as its high level of cooperation with Armenia... I do not think this is the first time Iran has carried weapons for the Hezbollah terrorist organisation through Armenia.478
Veksler did not rule out the possibility that Iran may also supply weapons to Armenia and to forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, stating: “it is easy to do, and the Armenians will not give it up.”479
The Caspian Airlines disaster was not an isolated incident of illicit smuggling by air. Tehran and the Revolutionary Guard have a long and undistinguished history in this regard.
Tehran has embarked upon a programme to build up Hezbollah’s arsenal to a point where it is much more heavily armed than it was on the eve of its 2006 war against Israel.480 Its proxy in Beirut would be strengthened through the transfer of know-how and technology,481 and making another round of conflict between the terror group and Israel likelier. The Revolutionary Guards would use all available means to support the Lebanon-based group.
Iran has used a variety of airlines in order to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah, its terrorist allies in Beirut. In 2016, the United Nations Security Council heard evidence that “the Iranian Al-Quds Force packs weapons, ammunition and missile technology to Hezbollah in suitcases and puts them on Mahan Air flights”482 heading for Beirut.
In 2018 Fox News, citing Western intelligence sources, reported on several Qeshm Fars Air flights from Tehran to Beirut, that took unusual flight routes, and were cited as having smuggled weapons into Lebanon. Fars Air Qeshm flight number QFZ-9950 departed Tehran International Airport on a Tuesday at 9:33am local time, and flew to an unknown destination, according to flight data. Later in the day, the Boeing 747 jet touched down in Syria’s capital Damascus before continuing on to Beirut, arriving just past 2pm, according to the flight tracker software.483
The Fox News story also included comment from ‘a regional intelligence source’ that: The Iranians are trying to come up with new ways and routes to smuggle weapons from Iran to its allies in the Middle East, testing and defying the West’s abilities to track them down.484
Tehran has also quietly smuggled illegal arms to Russia, via Syria, using airpower, in doing so violating United Nations Security Council resolution 2231. Resolution 2231 prohibits Iran from “the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related material from Iran by their nationals or using their flag vessels or aircraft and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran” unless approved in advance by the United Nations Security Council.485
Germany’s Welt am Sonntag and Israel’s Jerusalem Post reported flights from ran landing at the Khmeimim Air Base – the most important Russian military installation in civil war-torn Syria – where military equipment was transferred to the port at Tartus and shipped to Novorossiysk, Russia’s main port in the Black Sea.486
As far as the Tu-154 disaster is concerned, the axis behind it could, at the outset, seem strange. One side is the Islamic Republic of Iran, where in shops, offices, hotels and public buildings you are under a constant suspicious gaze from portraits of a glowering Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On the other is Armenia, which never misses an opportunity to play the Christianity card. And finally Shia Islamist political party and militant group Hezbollah, and its peevish secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.
But then, money talks louder than conviction.
The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons occurs in all parts of the globe but is concentrated in areas afflicted by armed conflict, violence and organised crime, where the demand for banned weapons is often highest. Arms trafficking fuels civil wars and regional conflicts, stocks the arsenals of terrorists, drug cartels, and other armed groups; and contributes to violent crime and the proliferation of sensitive technology.
“In the past, arms control has tended to focus on nuclear weapons or on limiting major items of equipment – like tanks or artillery pieces. But over recent years governments have increasingly been looking at controlling the world’s real killers – things like anti-personnel landmines that kill and maim tens of thousands every year,” writes BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus. “For all the fears about tanks, aircraft and high-tech weaponry – it is simple pistols, rifles and machine guns that fuel most conflicts around the world.”487
The illegal weapons industry is opaque, amorphous and dynamic. It is also a global enterprise with illicit weapons across Africa, for example, coming from virtually every major arms-producing country in the world. The clandestine nature of this trade makes it almost impossible to trace throughout the supply chain. The use of Nagorno-Karabakh and the even more well documented role of Armenia has made them nodes within the trade.
The overlapping, secretive and transnational and transregional arms markets bouncing arms across the world, is feeding conflict. As Erin Cunningham notes on Public Radio International: ...arms are often gleaned from abandoned stockpiles, bought from corrupt security officials or trafficked from neighbouring countries... in addition to assault rifles, Soviet-made large-calibre machine guns, United States-manufactured Glock pistols, Chinese shotguns, anti-tank weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers are all feeding the frequent armed confrontations...488
Author Patrick Radden Keefe set out the ideal conditions that allow illegal arms hubs to emerge, and this almost sounds like a description of the Nagorno- Karabakh-Armenia axis: state degradation, borderlands where sovereign boundaries converge, corruption, poverty with large informal economies, and extensive tribal or kinship networks.489
The resort to arms is as ancient as many of the grievances over which some conflicts are fought. Consequently, the rights of self-defence and self- determination are well established in international law, says the International Committee of the Red Cross in its study titled ‘Arms availability and the situation of civilians in armed conflict’. What is new is that a vast number of actors have increasingly easy access to highly lethal weaponry from assault rifles to rocket launchers, facilitated by the opening of borders, arms surpluses from the Cold War and the rapid expansion of free trade. What has changed is that such weapons are increasingly falling into the hands of all types of fighters, including children, unconstrained by the rules of international humanitarian law.490
From governments and administrations, to criminal enterprises and individuals, anyone participating in the illegal arms industry, be it as a dealer directly, providing grey space for the industry to operate, or simply looking the other way, in return for payment, is complicit in the death and misery that the aforementioned groups have caused around the world.
The International Committee of the Red Cross notes that: As international arms transfers, particularly of small arms, have become easier the promotion of respect for international humanitarian law has become vastly more difficult. The proliferation of weapons in the hands of new and often undisciplined actors has outpaced efforts to ensure compliance with basic rules of warfare. The result is appalling levels of wanton violence and a stream of horrific images which threaten to immunise the public and decision-makers to ongoing violations of humanitarian law.491
A few hundred miles from 39°32′49′′N 046°03′25′′, the Sisian airstrip in Armenia, there is another remote runway. It is one that sears into the very heart of Azerbaijanis.
The town of Khojaly is situated some 14 kilometres north-west of Stepanakert. On the night of February 26th, 1992, a massacre occurred.492
A quarter of a century later, Khojaly airstrip, now renamed Stepanakert Airport – along with other remote landing strips across Nagorno-Karabakh – is a staging post for the means for similar events, all over the world.
In Nagorno-Karabakh they do not like foreigners visiting Khojaly too much. Perhaps this is because of the ghoulish visitors who flock to the sites of other tragedies, like Beslan in the Russian Federation, or Srebrenica in Bosnia, for example. Or maybe it is because there is understandable consternation over whom may be taking a close look at the nearby airfield.
Baku certainly is. Azerbaijan’s Azernews reported on a statement made by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry in June 2018: The radar stations of the Azerbaijan Air Defense Forces maintains constant control of the airspace of the country, including Khojaly airport, and monitors the movement of all air assets. Information about the routes of any flights is immediately and automatically transferred to the command post of the Air Force.493
The same report published by the Azerbaijan Defense Ministry contained photos and videos of the airport showing a number of aircraft on the ground.
In Stepanakert, the population of the town know all about what goes on there and at other remote sites around the territory. Clandestine single-use airstrips pop up almost at will in remote parts of Nagorno-Karabakh – and indeed Armenia – and are virtually undetectable. Stepped-up interdiction efforts in Armenia – as mandated by the international community – has meant that the aviation business has shifted across the border and into the disputed territory. Crude runways hidden deep in the mountains can pop up in a day, virtually within sight of isolated communities who are unaware of their existence until small aircraft begin landing.
This allows Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia to possess a great deal of appeal as an air bridge for international criminal organisations. This, coupled with official reluctance to engage with efforts against such activities, make it ideal.
Armenia has always had its ties into the industry, and indeed the illegal arms industry has been led by some larger-than-life Armenian personalities. Sarkis Soghanalian is perhaps the most famous of all. Another big name is Viktor Bout.
One account of Bout, the world’s most notorious weapons trafficker after the death of Soghanalian, tells of United States Drug Enforcement Administration efforts to snag him. This illustrates his familiarity with Armenia.
The New Yorker reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration had sought to lure Bout to Romania: The DEA agents had chosen Romania because they knew that local authorities would let them tap phones. Bout, meanwhile, worked on getting a visa, but being tracked by the United States had dulled his adventurism. He told Smulian (Andrew Smulian, a fellow arms dealer claimed to be British-Armenian) that Romania was “not a very easy place for me,” and suggested meeting in Montenegro, Moldova or Armenia.494
The nations’ laissez-faire approach, one that could even be described as welcoming, protective even, would attract ‘businessmen’ from across the globe. Their industry represents a parallel world of money, corruption, deceit and death. It operates according to its own rules, largely unscrutinised, bringing enormous benefits to the chosen few, and suffering an immiseration to millions.
Arthur Musayelyan, assistant general manager at the Park Hotel Artsakh, has a favourite customer, a deeply unlikable Bangladeshi businessman named Moosa Bin Shamsher.495
Bin Shamsher is particularly visible in Stepanakert, where Asians are somewhat rare. Not least those who dress like spivs. He has visited Nagorno- Karabakh several times.
For many years Bin Shamsher was a regular in many top Stepanakert hotels and, according to Musayelyan, is known as the biggest of big tippers. Staff at the Park Hotel Artsakh, and the business-oriented Europe Hotel Artsakh on Azatamartikneri Avenue, are united in their affection for the flamboyant tycoon.
In Stepanakert a crisp $50 bill, proffered to a bellboy or waitress, can go a long way to feeding a family for many days. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Bangladeshi is a highly prized customer.
Some of those hotel workers vying for his favours may not know that Bin Shamsher has made his fortune as a Merchant of Death, but several, including Musayelyan, refer to him by his preferred moniker, Prince Musa Bin Shamsher. Perhaps Prince of Death may be a better title.
The Vancouver Sun dubbed him the ‘Man with the Golden Guns’,496 while United News of India says that he was ‘once one of the ten richest men in the world.’497
Despite the hideous trail of misery his weapons have caused, strewn liberally in war zones across the world, the self-proclaimed prince is content to show off his ill-gotten gains to documentary film-makers and journalists. In 2018, he planted a fictional story in the media that named himself as the backchannel power broker who fixed a summit in Singapore between American President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.498 He is pretty shameless.
However, its arms deals have afforded him some status. The Hindustan Times says that Bin Shamsher is ‘known to have a vast and shady network in many countries, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as an alleged broker in defence purchases.’499 Multiple publications estimate that he has a net worth of $12 billion, much of it stashed in Swiss bank accounts.500,501
Whatever his business in Nagorno-Karabakh, so omnipresent is the Bangladeshi and his entourage of flunkeys that, when they are in town, Musayelyan is always around to escort him when entering, or exiting, the Park Hotel Artsakh. Musayelyan comments that Bako Sahakyan is always courteous to the Bangladeshi and sends an official car to fetch Bin Shamsher when he has a meeting at Sahakyan’s well-appointed offices.
So why is the billionaire Bangladeshi self-anointed prince a regular visitor to Stepanakert?
In Bin Shamsher’s own words, published in the Dhaka Tribune in 2017 upon the death of Adnan Khashoggi, perhaps the world’s most heinous arms dealer, Khashoggi was “...my dear, dear friend, business partner, and mentor...”502
Reports in another publication in his homeland: “...Shamsher’s business, DATCO, deals in global weaponry, including tanks, fighter planes and ballistic missiles.”503 For good measure, the International Crimes Tribunal has received evidence against him in connection with alleged crimes against humanity.504
The nature of his business is clear.
Former minister Samvel Babayan was one of the first to come unstuck through his association with the corrosive Bin Shamsher. Considered a war hero, Babayan would come to prominence as Defence Minister between 1994 and 2000. During that period Babayan “became not only the military leader but the most powerful man in Karabakh overall, controlling its government and economy” according to one analysis.505
It was not just rumours that suggested links to Bin Shamsher. The pair have been seen together on the Bangladeshi’s visits to the territory, including meetings at his hotel. Towards the end of his reign as Defence Minister, Babayan became brazen.
In 2018 United States National Security Advisor John Bolton commented that Russian arms supplies have hampered the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.506 Sadly Bolton had already lost an ally in the process of demilitarisation. In Stepanakert, Babayan’s former stellar reputation was dimmed by what locals say was his readiness to flog off Artsakh Defense Army armaments and munitions. One can only reach the conclusion that these were shipped to war zones abroad.
In 2017, Babayan was convicted of weapons smuggling and money laundering.507
State actors also had a hand in weaponising Nagorno-Karabakh and flooding the international arms market.
The Kremlin gets around international restrictions on providing support for the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh through its various loans to Armenia – headlined when Moscow granted Armenia a $200 million credit in 2015 to buy Russian weapons and modernise its armed forces, including missile launchers, surface-to-air missile systems and ground-based radio reconnaissance technology – and in-kind donations.508
In turn, arms and munitions filter down from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. The Artsakh Defense Army functions almost as an extension of the Armenian military, although the extent of the relationship is not fully understood. Armenia’s government insists it has not deployed any military units in Nagorno-Karabakh and that separatist forces are independent.
Debate has raged as to the ethnic make-up of the Artsakh Defense Army. Is it a domestic force? Or does it include Armenians?
As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports: Independent Western experts – including researchers for the British Defence Ministry, the International Crisis Group, and the British-based International Institute for Strategic Studies – cast doubt on those claims...
In a 2008 research paper published by the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, C.W. Blandy stated that “several battalions” of the Armenian Army were “deployed directly in the Karabakh zone on occupied Azerbaijani territory.” ...more than half of the 20,000-strong Nagorno-Karabakh force comprised citizens of Armenia.509
Of course, the relationship is further strengthened through the leadership ties that bind Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Kocharyan, a native of the territory, served as commander-in-chief of the Artsakh Defense Army, and went on to serve as Prime Minister and President in Yerevan.
Also hailing from Nagorno-Karabakh, Sargsyan played a key role in bringing together local paramilitary forces into a fledgling army.
Before Yerevan called them to service, Kocharyan and Sargsyan both oversaw the Artsakh Defense Army and affairs in the territory. The former’s attitude toward state assets and the use of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh territory for questionable activities is best summarised by an article published by NEWS.am which was headlined ‘How a person can have $4 billion in a country with annual budget of $2.5 billion?’510
On the latter, within weeks of losing his grip on power, Eurasianet reported on June 2018 on the speedy unravelling of his networks when it reported: Six relatives of former President Serzh Sargsyan, as well as his bodyguard and a member of parliament from his Republican Party, have been charged with felonies by the National Security Service over the last month.511
What Bako Sahakyan is doing meeting with Bin Shamsher is another question. Since Babayan was caught raiding the armouries, there was some increased oversight over the armed forces in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Or it was claimed so.
Was the Bangladeshi securing safe passage through the territory for his business? It would seem likely.
Life has not been as easy in recent times for The Prince, or his colleague, Syrian ‘businessman’ Monzer al-Kassar. Equally for Lebanese-Armenian dealer Joe der Hovsepian, a well-known mover and shaker in Stepanakert circles.
The angst of the world’s top arms traffickers has been due to continued and improved global oversight of the industry. Heightened requirements for arms export data, United Nations reports, plane tracking and weapon contracts tracking have all begun to create restrictions.
A host of non-profit organisations have sprung up, drawing further attention to the problem. The INTERPOL Illicit Arms Records and Tracing Management System512 represents a further state-of-the art challenge.
Interviewed for the book Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, one prominent Armenian dealer had a lot to say on what he views as the challenges facing independent contractors such as himself. “The advice and interaction with clients has gone because [they] buy direct from the factory now using the Internet,” claims Joe der Hovsepian – an arms dealer who has been active in Yemen, amongst other places, for years – nostalgically. And, since 9/11, financial and other checks have become so much more stringent. As der Hovsepian again laments: “Business was much easier at the beginning. People would arrive with $5 million in cash. Now you have to fill in hundreds of forms to deposit or withdraw more than $15,000!”513
If global arms traffickers can publicly lament the ‘good-old-days’, then what hope for the God-fearing, law-abiding rest of us?
During the course of the 20th century, the trade in arms made viable and fuelled conflicts that cost the lives of 231 million people. The first decades of the 21st century have, if anything, been more violent.
Yet even in an era of greater global oversight and regulation, der Hovsepian can be thankful for his home and the ungoverned space that Yerevan has maintained to its east. Fragile states represent chaos, disorder, and underdevelopment, and their existence on the fringes of the modern world threatens the security of the developed world.
Yerevan’s complicity in creating a situation where there exists a state that is not a state, and one that operates from outside the boundaries of the international community, is clear. It is enshrined in a variety of international decisions, perhaps most recently as evidenced by a European Court of Human Rights decision.
Chiragov v. Armenia was an international human rights case regarding the rights to property for Azerbaijani nationals in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), having examined the evidence, confirmed in its judgement on the case that: ...the Republic of Armenia, through its military presence and the provision of military equipment and expertise, has been significantly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from an early date...
The Grand Chamber comprises a panel of 17 senior European judges, elected by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from lists of three candidates proposed by each state. The same Chiragov v. Armenia decision added that: [t]his military support has been – and continues to be – decisive for the conquest of and continued control over the territories in issue... the evidence... convincingly shows that the armed forces of Armenia and the “NKR” are highly integrated.
Created in 1959 on the basis of Article 19 of the European Convention on Human Rights, with all member states as contracting parties, the Grand Chamber’s compelling decision added: ...the Republic of Armenia, from the early days of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, has had a significant and decisive influence over the “NKR”, that the two entities are highly integrated in virtually all important matters and that this situation persists to this day... the “NKR” and
its administration survives by virtue of the military, political, financial and other support given to it by Armenia which, consequently, exercises effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, including the district of Lachin.514
By virtue of the weight of international decisions on this matter, and not least this latest European Court of Human Rights decision, it is clear that every illicit bullet, gun, mine and shell that passes through Nagorno-Karabakh, represents oxygen for a variety of wars and insurrections around the world, the direct responsibility of political oligarchs in both Yerevan and Stepanakert.
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