When I explained how Assad’s army, opposition paramilitaries and foreign security forces facilitated the illicit trade in Syrian antiquities, I noted that at least some antiquities were ‘transported by airplanes to selected locations’…
Not civilian carriers
Regarding flights between Turkey and Syria, Turkish airspace has been closed to carriers of military cargo to the Syrian regime since the 22nd of September 2011. All civilian flights from Syria to Turkey and from Turkey to Syria have been banned since the 14th of October 2012.
Between those dates, there was one(?) Syrian Air A320 Airbus passenger plane, which flew from Moscow to Damascus via Ankara (Esenboğa); but it only stopped in Turkey because Turkey forced it to land and confiscated military materials that had been destined for regime forces, so it was not a vehicle for the opposition’s arms-for-antiquities trafficking.
There was also one(?) Air Armenia cargo flight, which (at least officially but perhaps not only) carried humanitarian aid supplies from Yerevan to Aleppo via Erzurum. The Antonov-12 (An-12) stopped to be searched by prior agreement, and it may have secretly carried illicit cargo, but it was a one-off flight, so it cannot have been the supply line for an ongoing operation.
Technically, a few light aircraft might have succeeded in a few specialist trips since the total flight bans, and there are some small-scale smuggling operations that might risk this method. However, it is exceedingly unlikely that Turkey is not very strictly monitoring the skies over its border with Syria. And the evidence suggests that (elements within) Turkish military and security forces are complicit, so there’s no need to use light aircraft to evade those forces anyway.
Since there has been extra-tight security for two years and a civilian flight ban for one year, there are regular and massive military cargo flights from Turkey to Syria, there is military involvement elsewhere in the antiquities supply chain, and the antiquities smuggling flights have persisted, the antiquities are (very probably) smuggled by military aircraft…
Which military aircraft might have been used to smuggle antiquities between Syria and Turkey?
Initially, Qatar had led the arming of primarily Islamist rebels (who control Syria’s border with Turkey); then Saudi Arabia took control of the supply and tried to strengthen secularist rebels (who control Syria’s border with Jordan); then, finally, the United States took charge. Now, the CIA coordinates Saudi, Qatari and Jordanian(-funded) flights via Turkey and Jordan.
With Qatari support, the Turkish Armed Forces have long controlled/directed military and communications aid to rebels in northern Syria from Adana or its nearby American/Turkish İncirlik military airport (though at some point the CIA may have limited arms transports between Turkey and Syria in an attempt to avoid arming Islamists). (With Saudi support, Jordan supplies rebels in southern Syria.)
The equipment is overwhelmingly bought from Croatia (so that if the rebels capture any of the regime’s inter-operable Russian or Iranian equipment, they can use it). Some of it is transported via Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase, which is an American military hub; some of it is transported by the Ilyushin-76 (Il-76MF) of Jordanian International Air Cargo, which according to a regional air traffic official is ‘a front company for Jordan’s air force’, from Zagreb through Amman to Ankara.
Either way, it is then delivered through Ankara (Esenboğa), Istanbul, Antalya or Gaziantep (or Amman). (It appears that Turkey transports material overland from Adana (İncirlik) to enable the (im)plausible deniability of its involvement.(1)) The equipment may be delivered to and removed from the now rebel-held Minnig Military Airport between Gaziantep and Aleppo.
Qatar Emiri Air Force C-130 have operated from Istanbul and C-17 from Ankara. Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130 and Royal Saudi Air Force C-130 cargo planes operate a supply line from Ankara Esenboğa airport. Yet, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, Turkey continues to insist that these flights have ‘only carried humanitarian aid‘.
Which militaries’ operations have been exploited to smuggle antiquities between Syria and Turkey?
There have been (by now, far more than) 160 flights that have delivered (far more than) 3,500 tonnes of military materials (according to those planes’ official capacity). Some of those will have been from Jordan, but most of them will have been from (and overseen by) Turkey, so a huge number of antiquities could have been transported out this way (on the unofficial manifest).
How much of Syria’s history and identity has been stolen this way, and which criminals within which military have smuggled out Syria’s cultural heritage, is (as yet) unknown. But since elements within Turkey’s military and security forces are involved elsewhere in the trade in Syrian conflict antiquities, and since Turkey’s military is managing the airlift operations through which Syria’s stolen cultural property is being smuggled to Turkey, Turkey’s mafia/deep state must be a suspect.
Since the Qatari monarchy/state are ‘the most important buyers of art in the market today’ (and the elite include collectors too), there is clearly huge consumer demand for art and antiquities (though I’m obviously not suggesting that any of those buyers would be negligent of their responsibilities, only that some dealers might launder antiquities in order to supply that market). And since Qatar’s military and intelligence are engaged with both the Turkish military and the Islamist rebels on Syria’s Turkish border, criminal elements within the Qatari military might be involved in the smuggling of antiquities out of Syria into Turkey and/or from Turkey to Qatar.
1: Similarly, there are Unites States Air Force C-130 at İncirlik, but apparently they have not been used (yet).