Malaysia Airlines Rerouting Flights Over War-torn Syria Instead of Ukraine

After one of its passenger airliners was blasted from the sky over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 onboard, the ill-starred carrier Malaysia Airlines is rerouting flights away from the region — and over war-torn Syria instead.

Al Arabiya on Monday reported that Malaysia Airlines’ flights from Kuala Lumpur to London were rerouted to a more southerly flight path. The new path passes over Syria and, just barely, Iraq, demonstrating how difficult it is to find paths free from conflict in volatile Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

To judge from Syrian air defenses, Malaysia Airlines might be routing its planes from the frying pan straight into the fire.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has an impressive air defense network that has stood idle during the regime’s civil war against rebel factions, which have no air force. His toys include two regiments of high-altitude S-2000 surface-to-air missiles and the Buk-M2 missile system, the same system that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week.

In an interesting twist, much of Syria’s air defenses were purchased from Russia, the world’s second largest arms exporter and key strategic ally. In fact, Malaysia Airlines’ new flight path puts its planes within 20 miles of Russia’s warm water naval facility in Tartus, Syria, an important symbol of the two countries’ relationship.

In addition to the regime’s weapons, the less disciplined Syrian rebels also have air defense systems. Last month, it was revealed that U.S.-made Stinger missiles may have fallen into the hands of fighters affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. These shoulder-mounted weapons pack a punch, although they cannot reach commercial cruising altitudes.

Given the country’s vast and varied arsenal, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration “strongly discourages” commercial flights over Syria.

According to the FAA, civil aircraft have “unexpectedly found themselves in close proximity to munitions and missile firings” within the Damascus flight information region in the recent past, as in 2013 when a Russian airliner reported that a missile detonated near it while cruising over Syrian airspace.

Malaysia Airlines has not commented on its route over Syria, although it has defended its decision to fly over Ukraine. When MH17 was shot down last week, commercial flights were authorized on its flight path over 32,000 feet. MH17 was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet.

Flightradar24 documented 800 passenger flights by numerous carriers on the flight path the week MH17 was shot down, although at least two carriers, British Airways and Air France, avoided the country altogether on flights from Europe to Asia.

The attack on MH17 has brought into question the common practice of flying over war zones.

“Nobody in his right mind should be flying commercial aircraft over that part of the world,” retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told NBC. “It’s just astonishing to me that Malaysia Airlines is still using that route.”

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