antiquities dealer Fuat Aydıner, aviation service CEO Gökhan Sarıgöl and 14,000 cultural objects

The basics of this case are fairly simple, yet its implications may be far-reaching, if it is ever satisfactorily concluded, whether it results in convictions or acquittals. This post covers the sources; the question of whether it is the biggest case in the history of the Republic of Turkey (which it may be, by one practically immeasurable definition); a summary of the priceless objects and fake objects that have been seized; a summary of the metal-detectors, money, guns and drugs that have been seized; and a summary of the suspects, with separate sections on unspecified businessman Onur Uğurlu, antiquities dealer Fuat Aydıner and aviation businessman Gökhan Sarıgöl. Then, there is a note on conspiracy and coincidence.

sources

There may be other problems with available evidence, such as publication of photographs of unrepresentative samples of seized objects, as occurred in the reporting on the United States’ raid on Islamic State asset manager Abu Sayyaf in Syria and as I suspect has happened in this case; persisting persecution of cultural heritage defenders, such as Osman Kavala and Anadolu Kültür; and politicised policing (or non-policing) of alleged traffickers of cultural objects, as unjust prosecutions were allegedly launched by prosecutor Ferhat Sarıkaya and a just investigation was allegedly not launched against suspects who had been identified by since-murdered police officer Mithat Erdal (then a potentially just investigation was launched for political reasons). Still, this case is alleged to be an everyday case of antiquities trafficking, air smuggling, organised crime and corporate crime.

Alongside more specific sources, such as the press release from Fly Service, this analysis draws on a range of generic news sources, which are linked to each point, including Doğan News Agency, Kokpit.aero, Çetin Aydın in Hürriyet, Halil Demir of the Anatolian Agency in Arkeolojik Haber, Çağatay Kenarlı of Doğan News Agency in Hürriyet, Konhaber, Habip Atam in Sözcü, Sabah, Milliyet, Mehmet Ali Demir in Vatan, Hamid Koçoğlu in Yeni Şafak, Star, Milliyet, Akaryakıt Haberleri, the English-language China News Service (ECNS) and TurizmGüncel.

curiosities in coverage

Although much reporting is a product of a desire for “content” rather than influence, it should be noted that this case has been covered by Russia’s Turkish-language Sputnik News.

Sputnik launched its Turkish-language service on 26th December 2014. Whether reports addressed specific cases of antiquities trafficking or noted generic associations with terrorist financing, based on searches for tarihi+eser+kaçakçılığı, Turkish-language Sputnik appears to have published around 12 stories that related to cultural property crime in 2015; 12 in 2016; 10 in 2017; and 24 (so far) in 2018. (Obviously, there may be relevant stories that use other keywords.)

It is notable that there are different trends in coverage in different languages. For instance, Sputnik launched its English-language service on 10th November 2014. Yet, based on searches for antiquities+smuggling, English-language Sputnik appears to have published around 3 stories that related to cultural property crime in 2015; 3 in 2016; 1 in 2017; and 0 (so far) in 2018.

Naturally, it is impossible to compare these trends with interest in the subject before the establishment of these services, beyond the decision to establish these services and provide these pieces of content. Nonetheless, the coverage appears to fit a broader pattern, wherein the subject of antiquities trafficking has become politically significant (or politically convenient) as it has become associated with the Islamic State, then has been exploited even more as it has been recognised as an effective instrument of propaganda and information warfare. And it is a feature of Russia’s operations in the New Cold War.

‘The largest operation in the history of the Republic!'(?)

This case has been reported as ‘the largest operation in the history of the Republic [Cumhuriyet tarihinin en büyük operasyonu]!’ As investigative journalist Jason Felch cautioned, ‘Turkey made [a] similar “largest ever seizure” statement last year with [the] seizure of [26,000] objects in Operation Zeus. Not clear how this one is bigger.’

In that case, in a move across five provinces (Çanakkale, Düzce, leading branch İstanbul, Kars and Rize) between the 12th and the 21st of December 2017, Operation Zeus detained 13 suspects and seized 26,456 cultural objects, which, as archaeologist Paul Barford observed, appeared to have come from not just Turkey, but ‘all over’ the region.

Still, as I responded to the friend who sent me the first Turkish-language report, ‘when you say “big”, you really do mean big!’ The authorities may be measuring the scale of the operation by the financial value of the seizure or by the fuzzily-defined significance of the disrupted organisation.

Due to the alleged collaboration between organized criminals, corporate criminals and (potentially previously active and corrupt, presently retired) officials in antiquities trafficking in a supply chain that may eventually be traced to conflict zones and due to the alleged conspiracy against the suspects, this may be the biggest case in the history of Turkey.

However, other cases have involved a greater number of organised criminals, organised criminals in a greater number of territories, organised crime groups with a greater penetration of international markets, corrupt officials (such as another one this month, which allegedly involves Çaycuma District Security Director Ahmet Kılıç, as archived by Art Crime Monitor Turkey @artcrimontr), corrupt officials in a greater number of institutions, corrupt officials in more senior positions, combinations of these variations and more… It is practically impossible to rank cases of corrupt and/or organised cultural property crime in Turkey.

The authorities cannot be measuring the operation by the quantity of seized objects, as the operation in 2017 seized almost twice as many, or by the size of the disrupted organisation, as one operation in 2010 disrupted a gang that had at least 35 members, who included at least one member of the recently-disrupted organisation.

(Otherwise, the police and/or journalists who have discussed this case may have reduced “one of the biggest” to “the biggest”; or they may not have worked on the other cases.)

priceless objects and fake objects

On the 9th – or 11th? – of October 2018, the Department of Anti-Smuggling and Organised Crime (Kaçakçılık ve Organize Suçlar Şube Müdürlüğü (KOM)) conducted raids on 41 addresses (including homes and workplaces) across 12 provinces (Afyonkarahisar, Aksaray, Antalya, Bartın, Bursa, Gaziantep, leading branch Istanbul, Kırklareli, Konya, Muğla, Nevşehir and Niğde) and recovered ‘a large number of ancient objects [çok sayıda tarihi eser]’, which included ‘priceless objects [paha biçilemeyen eser[ler]]’.

They had been taken through ‘theft [hırsızlık]’ as well as looting (or ‘illegal excavation [kaçak kazı]’). It should be noted that, on being shown the limited, low-resolution images of sculptures that have been published by the media, one classical archaeologist judged that there were ‘quite a few fakes’. Judging by other photographs, there maybe numerous forgeries, though it is not yet known whether they were produced by the gang or bought from others.

Specifically, the police recovered 14,000 palaeontological, Neolithic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman cultural objects, which included fish fossils, stone axes, cooking vessels, ‘terracotta and bronze [oil] lamps, terracotta and bronze sculptures, animal figures, steles, statues of gods including the god of war Ares, and human figures’ including a Roman emperor and a discus-throwing athlete.

Whether genuine or fake, all sorts of things were recovered: weapons, such as swords, and armour, such as a helmet that is decorated with an image of the Pegasus and a piece of frontal armour for a horse (at alınlığı) that is decorated with an image of Ares; dervishes’ beggar’s bowls (derviş fukara kaseleri); a supposedly two thousand-year-old, winged, goat-bodied, human-faced figure that is made from gold (altından yapılan insan yüzlü keçi bedenli ve kanatlı 2 bin yıllık ikonu), which does not sound like Pan, a satyr, a faun or even Baphomet but rather a dire fake (indeed, a photograph suggests that it is a dire fake of a lamassu/shedu – a winged, bull-bodied, human-faced figure from ancient Assyria); a bronze David’s Bowl (Davut’un Kasesi) or bowl with a relief of David’s Wedding (Davut’un Düğünü)… As Jason Felch observed, the objects looked like ‘they came from a wide variety of sources, with Turkey as both source nation and transit nation for illicit trade’.

According to Hürriyet, the seized objects will be examined by Istanbul Archaeology Museums (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri), Topkapı Palace Museum (Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi), the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum (Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi), Hagia Sophia Museum (Ayasofya Müzesi) and the Military Museum (Askeri Müze).

'Photo taken on Oct. 19, 2018 shows historical artifacts confiscated in anti-smuggling operations in Istanbul, Turkey' (ECNS, 22nd October 2018).

‘Photo taken on Oct. 19, 2018 shows historical artifacts confiscated in anti-smuggling operations in Istanbul, Turkey’ (ECNS, 22nd October 2018).

metal-detectors, money, guns and drugs

The Security Directorate also seized six metal-detectors (literally, ‘6 treasure-hunting detectors [6 define arama dedektörü]’). In addition, they seized 450,000 EUR, 33,300 USD and 276,000 TL (in other words, a multi-currency cash pile with a total value of nearly 600,000 USD); an unlicensed pistol (1 adet ruhsatsız tabanca), an unlicensed rifle (1 adet ruhsatsız tüfek) and 33 bullets (33 adet mermi); and 26 grams of cannabis (26 gram uyuşturucu esrar maddesi), 2 narcotic pills (2 uyuşturucu hap) and 1 gram of cocaine (1 gram kokain). (The quantities of arms and narcotics in the suspects’ possession suggest use rather than dealing or smuggling.)

suspects

Of thirty persons of interest, twenty-seven suspects were taken into custody. Of those twenty-seven, eight were arrested and held on remand; four were put under house arrest while electronically tagged (kelepçe takılarak ev hapsi), nine were prohibited from leaving the country (yurtdışı çıkış yasağı) and six were released pending trial. The other three appear to be ‘fugitives [Firari]’.

Alongside more recognisable names, suspects include a ‘socialite art advisor [sosyetenin sanat danışmanı]’ who is variously identified as M. Ş. and N. Ş., ‘who set the prices for the objects [eserlere fiyat belirleyen]’. Amongst others, N. Ş. ‘bought [objects] for prices that were far below their value [değerinin çok altında bir fiyata satın alan]’ by undervaluing them.

Suspects also include some completely anonymous auction house owners (müzayede evi sahipleri) and/or antique shop owners (antika dükkanı sahipleri) or businessmen with antiquities dealerships (antikacılarla işadamları); a partially anonymised, retired police chief (emekli emniyet müdürü) from Bartin Security Directorate, who is variously identified as Ali T. and Ali Y.; and at least one completely anonymous retired colonel (emekli albay), archaeologist (arkeolog), physicist (fizikçi), sculptor (heykeltraş) and financial expert (finans uzmanı). It is important to note (and impossible not to notice) that, yet again, a suspected trafficking structure involves active and/or (in this case) retired law enforcement officials in ‘critical [kritik]’ positions.

They are being charged with ‘establishment of an organisation for the purpose of committing crimes and, as part of the activity of the organisation, contravention of Law Number 2863 on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets and trafficking of historic artefacts [suç işlemek amacıyla örgüt kurmaktan ve örgüt faaliyeti çerçevesinde 2863 sayılı kültür ve tabiat varlıklarını koruma kanuna muhalefet ve tarihi eser kaçakçılığı]’.

Onur Uğurlu

On the 24th of October 2018, ‘businessman Onur Uğurlu [işadamı Onur Uğurlu]’ was detained (gözaltına alındı) on suspicion of ‘trafficking in historic artefacts [tarihi eser kaçakçılığı]’.

Media note that Uğurlu is the half-brother of ‘famous business manager [Ünlü işletmeci]’ İzzet Çapa, who is a founder of enterprises in food, hospitality, entertainment and news.

In 2016, Çapa was detained and released on suspicion of ordering an attempted hit on a former accountant or business partner. After the attempted coup against the government, Çapa gave the impression of supporting purges by the government and fostering public belief in ‘hidden force[s] pulling the strings’ (while ostensibly ‘steer[ing] away from conspiracy theories‘) by interviewing an ‘enlightening’ friend. It is not yet clear whether Uğurlu was one of the fugitives or whether he is a new target.

Fuat Aydıner and the Grand Bazaar

Also identified as F. A. and Fuat A., notorious trader “Little” Fuat Aydıner is the alleged ‘gang leader [çete lideri]’ of this alleged criminal organization. He was based in the Grand Bazaar (or Covered Market, Kapalı Çarşı or Kapalıçarşı) in 1990, was still based there in 2010 and still seems to be registered there now (as Aykar Jewellery), though reports suggest that he had a shop in the market ‘earlier [Daha önce]’, ‘in the past [Geçmişte]’.

Aydıner has been discussed on Conflict Antiquities before, as the ‘number three [Üç numaralı]’ member of the suspected ‘gang [çete]’ or ‘international criminal organisation [uluslararası suç organizasyonu]’ of at least 35 operatives under Fuat Üzülmez and “Blind” Edip Telli (or Edip Telliağaoğlu).

Gökhan Sarıgöl and Fly Service

Gökhan Sarıgöl

Also identified as G. S. (with a pixelated photograph) and Gökhan S., Gökhan Sarıgöl was named (and, in the corporate denial of institutional guilt, named himself) as a suspect in the case. As Doğan News Agency specified, Sarıgöl had been ‘detained on charges of smuggling of antiquities [tarihi eser kaçakçılığı suçlamasıyla gözaltına alındı]’.

'İş adamı Gökhan Sarıgöl tarihi eser kaçakçılığı iddiası ile göz altına alındı [businessman Gökhan Sarıgöl detained on suspicion of antiquities smuggling]' (Kokpit.aero, Patronlar Dünyası, 11th October 2018)

‘İş adamı Gökhan Sarıgöl tarihi eser kaçakçılığı iddiası ile göz altına alındı [businessman Gökhan Sarıgöl detained on suspicion of antiquities smuggling]’ (Kokpit.aero, Patronlar Dünyası, 11th October 2018)

Seemingly since 1996, Sarıgöl has been the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Fly Service (also written as FlyService, Fly Servis and FlyServis), which is now ‘the number one airline representative firm in Turkey’. It ‘supports commercial airlines, providing airport supervision, representation and administration’, including brokerage of access to aircraft. For example, he is or was the representative of Iraqi Airways in Turkey.

He is also known as a ‘super-collector’ of flight memorabilia who, since 1980 (when he lived near Istanbul Atatürk Airport), has reportedly spent ‘around $2 million’ on more than 5,200 models (though, by 2011, they were ‘valued in excess of $3.5 million’). If that were true, it would suggest a mean average price of 385 USD and value of 673 USD. According to a seemingly past employee, he ‘never hesitat[ed] to shell out up to five or six thousand dollars for some of his models’.

According to the same former employee, through these purchases, Sarıgöl ‘acquired vintage cast iron airplane models at great expense of time and effort from antique shops, auctions or during his travels abroad’ and ‘became one of the best customers of antique shops and auction houses in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany’. Previously alleged partners-in-crime of Sarıgöl’s presently alleged partner-in-crime, Fuat Aydıner, include dealers of antiquities in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany.

Sözcü journalist Habip Atam has specified that Gökhan Sarıgöl was amongst those who had been ‘held under house arrest [tutukluluğunun ev hapsine çevrildiği]’. According to Akaryakıt Haberleri, he was kept under house arrest, rather than held on remand in prison, due to ‘heart disease and diabetes [kalp ve şeker hastalıkları]’.

Fly Service

Reports have suggested that ‘all of the suspects were top names in the same company [Şüphelilerin tamamının aynı şirketin üst düzey isimleri olduğu]’. However, that may refer to “all” of those who were eventually arrested, rather than all of those who were initially detained, since, as far as I know, neither Fuat Aydıner nor some of the other suspects with day jobs had senior positions in Fly Service. This was also reported in the appropriately named World of Bosses (Patronlar Dünyası).

As relayed by Kokpit.aero, ‘after questioning, Gökhan Sarıgöl [and] two [other] people from his company were released pending trial [Sorgunun ardından Gökhan Sarıgöl şirketinden iki kişi ile birlikte tutuksuz yargılanmak üzere serbest bırakıldı]’. In that interview, Sarıgöl specified that (as he understood it) those two were ‘museum officials [resmi müzenin çalışanı]’ (within the corporation and potentially in senior positions in the museum hierarchy, if not in the corporation more broadly). Still, with regard to the claim that “all of the suspects were top names in the same company” (or even that “the suspects were top names in the very same company”), media reporting appears to have been wrong.

Model Aircraft Museum

His private museum (özel müzesi) was technically established by Fly Air Cargo Tourism (Fly Hava Kargo Turizm); was opened on the 17th of April 2014; was seemingly registered as the Florya Model Aircraft Museum (Florya Model Uçak Müzesi); in its corporate gallery, was self-identified as the “Florya Model Airplane and History Museum” (or, read directly, the “Florya Airplane Model and History Museum”); and was temporarily self-described as an “aviation and history museum”, though the domain appears to have been abandoned. It curates ‘rare artefacts [nadide eserler]’ of the history of aviation as well as ‘the world’s largest model aircraft collection [Dünya’nın en geniş model uçak koleksiyonuna]’.

In fact, this museum of aviation history, which was licensed as such by the Directorate-General of Monuments and Museums (Kültür Varlıkları ve Müzeler Genel Müdürlüğü) of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (Kültür ve Turizm), appears to have been the receiver (if not the purchaser) of the ancient objects that were seized, ‘which [had] not yet been entered into the museum inventory [müze envanterine henüz girilmemiş]’.

The corporation has ‘publicise[d] [kamuoyuna duyururuz]’ that ‘all necessary official actions will be taken against all persons and institutions who spread unfounded and malicious news and speculation on the subject [Konu ile alakalı, mesnetsiz ve kötü niyetli haber ve spekülasyon yapan bütün kişi ve kurumlar hakkında da gerekli bütün resmi işlemlerin yapılacağını]’.

In the alternative phrasing of Milliyet, Sarıgöl ‘[had] not take[n] one action for the display of valuable work in the museum… [in] around five months and [had] not enter[ed] the seized antiquities in its depots into the museum’s inventory [müzede değerli eser sergilemek için… yaklaşık beş aydır bir işlem yapmadığı ve depolarında ele geçirilen eserleri müze envanterine işletmediği]’. Naturally, if this or any other translation or summary is inaccurate, I will correct it as soon as possible.

In an interview with Kokpit.aero, Sarıgöl has asserted that ‘[he is] faced with a conspiracy [Bir komplo ile karşı karşıyayım]’.

conspiracy

In Kokpit.aero, Sarıgöl insists:

I have authorisation to buy, and to display in a museum, the model aircraft and historical artefacts that I have collected for many years. All of the things that I get, I bring into Turkey through official customs procedures, with receipts, within the rules. Records are made. The state has been notified [literally, has got the news] about all of these.

[Uzun yıllardır topladığı uçak maketleri ve tarihi eserler için bunları satın alma, müzede sergileme konusunda yetkim bulunuyor. Ben tüm aldıklarımı kurallar dahilinde faturasıyla, resmi gümrük işlemleri ile Türkiye’ye getiriyorum. Kayıtları yapılıyor. Bunların hepsinden devletin haberi var.]

Sarıgöl asserts:

A conspiracy has been founded against me…. I do aeronautical work. [The] claims, like [the claim that] the smugglers were given apron cards [identification/ID cards that enable access to people, goods and vehicles on the (concrete) “tarmac”, ‘where aircraft are parked,
unloaded or loaded
, refueled, or boarded’], are an utter figment of the imagination. I believe that a conspiracy has been founded about myself and my company. The investigation continues in secret. A number of ancient objects have been seized with the intention of examination. We have provided all the documents.

[Bana bir komplo kuruldu…. Ben havacılık işi yapıyorum. Kaçakçılara apron kartı verildiği gibi iddialar tamamen hayal ürünü. Kendim ve şirketim hakkında komplo kurulduğuna inanıyorum. Soruşturma gizli devam ediyor. Bir miktar tarihi esere inceleme amaçlı el konuldu. Tüm belgeleri verdik.]

an aside on conspiracy and coincidence

context

It is known that Iran’s Military, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Basij paramilitaries, plus Hezbollah and other non-state armed groups have long been involved in the war in Syria, in support of the Assad regime; and arms are being transferred from Iran, ‘in the bottom of… fuselages’ on civilian flights through Turkey and Lebanon as well as Iraq, to Syria (which Turkey and Iraq have denied and Iran, Lebanon and Syria have neither confirmed nor denied).

Evidence suggests that (at least elements within) the Assad regime have been profiting from antiquities since before the war; Hezbollah has been at least ‘taxing antiquities’ since before the war; the Assad regime has been using profits from antiquities to finance or otherwise incentivise armed forces and armed groups such as shabiha during the war; and, whoever is involved, antiquities are being sold or bartered for arms. So, any coincidences could be interpreted as suspicious.

caution

At the same time, it is difficult to discuss detail; hearsay is rife; and archaeology/heritage is a clearly targeted line of attack, whether for information warfare by violent actors or other propaganda by political activists. Inconvenient elements within criminal-political-(para)military networks are even being targeted with exposure (or fabrication) of their trafficking of antiquities by other members of those networks, in order to displace useful-yet-challenging partners-in-crime and simultaneously to create a false impression of counter-trafficking by those networks. Even though the impression may not be convincing, it may be confusing enough to obscure the reality.

There may indeed be a conspiracy against Sarıgöl. Turkey does suffer conspiracies as well as conspiracy theories. Its current purges embody both. Even if he is not a victim of conspiracy (or baseless denunciation by business rivals or personal acquaintances), he may be a victim of coincidence. For example, due to the Palmyrene style of some of the seized objects, I checked for information on Sarıgöl and Syria; and, due to the results of those searches, I checked for information on Sarıgöl and Iran; and there were unfortunate associations.

I stress, I am not implying anything; I am doing the opposite. I am collating coincidences between Sarıgöl and Syria or Iran, including ones that are definitively meaningless, as a matter of public record. They demonstrate that alleged associations between Sarıgöl and trafficking may be similar coincidences.

2008

For instance, Sarıgöl (@SarigolGokhan) is or was (at least in 2008) the representative of (Iranian) Mahan Air in Turkey. In 2011, Mahan Air was ‘designated [in other words, sanctioned] by the United States ‘pursuant to [Executive Order] E.O. 13224 for providing financial, material and technological support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)’.

The United Nations Security Council’s sanctions were lifted on 16th January 2016. At least in 2017, Mahan Air was still operating in Turkey. Then, at least for tickets, their general sales agent (GSA) was the (Iranian) Eligasht travel agency. However, GSA work is only one of thirteen services that Fly Service offers, there is no indication that it performed GSA work for Mahan Air before Eligasht was contracted (from an unknown date) and there is no indication that it stopped providing any other services to Mahan Air after Eligasht was contracted.

2013

Around 23rd May 2013, Sarıgöl spotted an Ilyushin-76 (Il-76) cargo plane of ‘Pouya Air Lines’ (Pouya Cargo Air) from Iran at Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport. According to him (or perhaps Stratofreighter in the online forum of Scramble magazine, who quoted his seemingly deleted post on the Aviation Database), Pouya then had two Ilyushin-76s, which it had ‘acquired from former Yas Air’. It now appears to have three Il-76s, as well as three Antonov 74 (An-74) cargo planes; the An-74s have been converted to passenger planes. (The apparent deletion is unexplained, but not suspicious; a post about Iraqi Airways is unavailable, as well.)

According to the United States’ Department of the Treasury, Pouya Air is ‘an alias for designated [sanctioned] Iranian airline Yas Air, which was designated [for sanctions] in March 2012 pursuant to [Executive Order] E.O. 13224 for acting for or on behalf of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force] IRGC-QF for transporting illicit cargo, including weapons, to Iran’s clients in the Levant’. Yas Air was itself an alias for Pars Air, which was an alias for Qeshm Air.

(Russia and China have vetoed significant UN resolutions on Syria that would have imposed sanctions. Alternative sanctions have been imposed by other intergovernmental organisations and individual states, including the Arab League and the European Union, plus Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States.)

2014

In case anyone else tries to connect any other dots, it should be noted that, seemingly since 2014, Fly Service has been ‘the general sale and service agent of Qeshm Air [Fly servis Ltd 22 Temmuz itibatiyle Qeshm Airin Türkiye Kargo genel satış ve servis acentası olarak yetkilendirildi]’ for cargo flights through Turkey.

That Qeshm Air – also known as Qeshm Airlines, previously known as Faraz Qeshm Airline – was founded in 1993. It is neither the Qeshm Air – since known as Pars Air, Yas Air and Pouya Air Lines – that was founded in 2000 and sanctioned as an instrument of IRGC-QF activity, nor the Fars Air Qeshm – also known as Qeshm Fars Air – that was founded in 2003 and accused of being an instrument of IRGC-QF activity (via Lebanon, which the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in Lebanon has denied).

2016

Alongside more than 400 other aviation professionals, related professionals and government officials, Sarıgöl attended the Iran Aviation Summit of the international Centre for Aviation. Naturally, airlines that had been subjected to targeted sanctions as well as ones that had not were also at the ‘first international aviation conference in Iran for nearly four decades’, in Tehran on 24th-25th April 2016.

2017

Slightly varying reports by David Kaminski-Morrow at FlightGlobal, Nick McGowan at Aeronautics Online and Stijn Mitzer at Al Maha Aviation have described the convoluted procedure through which the Assad regime’s Syrian Arab Airlines (SyrianAir) bypassed international sanctions and ‘acquired’ an Airbus A340-300.

Following its use by standard airlines (such as Cathay Pacific as B-HXL and SriLankan Airlines as 4R-ADG) and its entry into the U.S. registry, the aircraft was transferred to an ‘undisclosed entity’ as N322AK, then flown from the United States to Kazakhstan. There, it was transferred to (Kazakh) Bek Air but not registered, then transferred to (Emirati) Zak Aviation and entered into the Kazakh registry as UP-A4001.

According to FlightGlobal, Kazakhstan’s transport prosecutor did notify its ‘anti-corruption bureau about the possibility that Airbus aircraft on the Kazakh state registry had been sold to Syrian entities’, seemingly to no avail. Then, it was flown from Kazakhstan to Iran. There, it was transferred to (Chadian) AirInter 1 and entered into the Chadian registry as TT-WAG, then flown from Iran to Syria. There, it was finally transferred to Syrian Arab Airlines and entered into the Syrian registry as YK-AZA.

According to Stijn Mitzer of Al Maha Aviation, Syria benefited from the ‘sanctions-busting’ expertise of Iran, which had already established a system for ‘acquiring [aircraft] via various airlines in post-Soviet states’. These included aircraft that were acquired for Mahan Air, which were deployed ‘in the Syrian Civil War, transporting Shiite fighters and their equipment from locations in Iran and Iraq to Syria’.

Indeed, according to security analyst Farzin Nadimi, ‘Mahan [Air] recently took delivery of the first of three secondhand Airbus A340s (UP-A4001 through UP-A4003) from Sri Lanka and Greece, this time using Kazakhstan’s Bek Air as an intermediary. At least one of these planes has been delivered to Syrian Air and just made its inaugural flight to Dubai.’ In that case, the sanctions-busting by Iran for Syria would have been arranged by the airline for which Sarıgöl was or had been the representative in Turkey.

(To use the language of Turkish conspiracy-theorising…) Curiously, a subsequent report by Max Prosperi at TravelUpdate included a photograph of ‘Syrian Air’s Airbus a340’ on its inaugural route from Damascus to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 13th April 2017. It credited one accompanying image to the airline and the other to Gokhan Sarigol.

In some Turkish-language media, Sarıgöl was credited as a ‘Turkish spotter, in other words, aircraft photographer [Türk spotter yani uçak fotoğrafçısı]’. Unsurprisingly, it was the same Sarıgöl, who is known for being a spotter of aircraft as well as the CEO of Fly Service.

It is not clear if his Twitter account @SarigolGokhan or other social media was the ultimate source of the image that was shared by Aviation Commons via Wikimedia Commons. Either way, it was credited to him. Equally, either way, again, the original post appears to have been deleted. It is not known whether Sarıgöl was at Dubai International Airport for business or plane-spotting when the aircraft landed on its first flight for Syrian Arab Airlines.

Summary

Obviously, Sarıgöl is a plane-spotter as well as an aviation professional. He will have spotted planes from many airlines in many places, as he will have provided services to many airlines in many places. So, false “indicators” and “patterns” may be created by targeted searches (for instance, for Sarıgöl+Syria and Sarıgöl+Iran rather than Sarıgöl+Libya and Sarıgöl+Sudan).

After all, when another aviation enthusiast spent a day in and around Istanbul Ataturk Airport in 2017, he spotted an A310-300 of Mahan Air, visited the “airplane model museum” and ‘met up with Mr. Gokhan Sarigol’. Yet that does not indicate a significant acquaintance of the enthusiast with Sarıgöl, let alone any association between the enthusiast and Mahan Air.

Again bearing in mind the everyday reality of malicious prosecution in Turkey, whatever the conclusion of the investigation into the 14,000 seized cultural objects, it will be instructive to learn the findings of criminality, complicity and/or conspiracy.

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