Diana Rahima | Jana al-Issa | Saleh Malas
The production, trafficking, and consumption of narcotic substances in Syria have more than doubled, turning it into one of the world’s leading countries in the drug industry.
This growth in drug production and export is attributed to the support provided by relatives of the Syrian regime’s president Bashar al-Assad and those associated with him, who made fortunes out of this illicit business.
The flourishing drug trade and manufacturing has generated substantial revenues to Syrian officials close to the regime, but its impact was becoming more and more clear on Syria’s neighboring countries.
In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi discusses the extent of the involvement of the regime and the al-Assad family in Syria’s drug trade, making it the country’s primary source of financial returns amid a collapsing economy by the decade-long conflict. Enab Baladi also sheds light on how the regime has been using drug trafficking as a pressure card to achieve certain interests without any external control or interference.
The volume of drug trade in Syria and its overseers
Several reports by newspapers and research centers have included evidence proving the involvement of Bashar al-Assad’s family and businessmen with close ties to the regime in drug-manufacturing and trading networks exporting drugs to other countries.
An investigation published by the US newspaper The New York Times on 5 December 2021 mentioned that the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian regime’s army, led by Maher al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother and one of Syria’s most powerful men), is overseeing much of the production and distribution of captagon pills.
The investigation also revealed that powerful businessmen linked to the regime, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and other members of the president’s extended family are involved in captagon trading.
A study by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR), published in late April 2021, pointed out that Syria has become a global center for the production of captagon pills and that its production of these drugs has increased and become more technically developed than ever before.
In 2020, captagon exports from Syria reached a market value of at least 3.46 billion US dollars, according to COAR’s study.
Key players in Syria’s drug business
The New York Times’ investigation, which was based on information obtained from dozens of interviews with international and regional drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade, and current and former United States officials, said that captagon labs are scattered across regime-held areas — in territories controlled by Hezbollah near the Lebanese borders; outside the capital Damascus; and around the port city of Latakia.
The investigation also found that many drug factories are small, in metal hangars or empty villas, with soldiers guarding some facilities, as others bear signs declaring them closed military zones.
The security bureau of the Fourth Division, headed by Major General Ghassan Bilal, provides much of the network’s nervous system. The bureau’s troops protect many of the factories and ease the movement of drugs to Syria’s borders and the Latakia port, according to the investigation.
The investigation named some influential Syrian businessmen close to the regime who are participants and key players in the drug business, including Amer Khiti and Khodr Taher, who oversees the Fourth Division’s checkpoints across regime-controlled areas, where he facilitates the movement of captagon smuggling.
In 2020, Khiti won a seat in the Syrian People’s Assembly, while Taher was awarded the Order of Merit by Bashar al-Assad in May 2021, “in recognition of his prominent services in economics and financial management during a time of war.”
Both Khiti and Taher gave back to the regime’s government by spending lavishly on banquets, billboards, rallies, and concerts in support of Bashar al-Assad’s presidential bid in May 2021.
Syrian official says allegations are false and misleading
The Syrian government, represented by the Director of the National Committee for Narcotics Control Office, Major Hussam Azar, denied the allegations mentioned in media reports and research centers’ studies confirming the Syrian regime’s involvement in the flourishing drug trafficking business and that Syria has turned into a narcostate.
In an interview with the al-Mashhad Online local news website on 11 January, Azar said that such reports “convey false and misleading information.”
Azar said that these reports’ figures on drug production and trade are “made up” because they are based on “open sources outside Syria,” adding that anyone in the counter-narcotics operations can “detect the falsification of these figures.”
Azar refuted the reports’ claims about drug production in Syria, attributing the rise in cross-border smuggling operations to a “surge” in consumption demand in neighboring countries and those close to Syria, “given Syria’s strategic and central geographical location that made it a transit country between drug-supplying and drug-consuming countries.”
Narcotics boost the regime and its networks’ shadow economy
The dramatic economic downturn in Syrian regime-controlled areas during the war years has led to a surge in war economic activities to help the regime survive.
The narcotics trade is perhaps the most visible and external dimension of the broader Syrian war economy, which surged as the rule of law eroded following the onset of the conflict in 2011,” according to the COAR study.
In late 2019, the Syrian regime’s globally seized captagon exports were estimated at nearly 3 billion US dollars, more than three times the regime’s legal exports of about 1 billion US dollars.
The Syria Report website that is dedicated to Syria’s business and economic news pointed out that the volume of Syrian drug exports and the decline in legitimate trade activities are meeting to make drugs by far “the main foreign currency revenue source for the Syrian economy.”
Joseph Daher, a researcher specializing in political economy, told Enab Baladi that drug trade had become an important revenue source for Syria’s shadow economy, allowing the regime and its associates involved in this illicit business to increase capital.
Daher stressed that the narcotics trade cannot save the Syrian economy; on the contrary, the Syrian economy needs a genuine recovery in the agricultural and industrial sectors and those that generate clean funds to be deposited in banks.
The researcher added that governments of countries neighboring Syria do not benefit from this illegal trade, as certain networks that function independently from their country’s economy but are politically influential, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, are the ones benefiting from Syria’s drug trade by financing part of their activities through this business.
A study published by Jusoor Center for Studies in October 2021 by economic researcher Khaled Turkawi said that Syria’s shadow economy revenues generated during 2010 were estimated at 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
According to scientific calculations performed by Turkawi, the percentage of revenues generated through shadow economy activities in Syria can amount to 200 percent of the official economy in 2021.
The study also mentioned that the shadow economy covers a wide range of illicit businesses in today’s Syria, including arms and drug trade, human trafficking, exploiting the displaced people’s assets and the country’s natural resources, and manipulating official transactions.
Most actors on Syrian territories are involved in the shadow economy activities, and their interests meet at more than one point.
What is the shadow economy?
The shadow economy is another term for the black, the underground, informal, or parallel economy.
It is the group of economic activities by individuals and institutions which are neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government. Activities of the informal economy are not included in a country’s gross national product (GNP) or gross domestic product (GDP).
The shadow economy has a group of characteristics, most notably:
- Legal and illegal economic activities
- Money-laundering operations
- Hidden and crooked ways in carrying out businesses and developing them
- Not monitored by the government and generates unreported incomes
- A whole economy, not just a market
Source: Jusoor Center for Studies
What lies behind the Syrian regime’s promotion of anti-drug efforts?
Despite reports condemning the regime and demonstrating its association with narcotics trade and exploitation of its proliferation to support its collapsing economy by a decade of war, the regime’s official media continues to announce, on an almost daily basis, the arrest of drug dealers and seizure of drug shipments by the regime’s Anti-Narcotics Department.
Such media announcements might depict the regime as the primary protector of Syria’s borders with its neighbors and the biggest opponent to drugs manufacturing and distribution in Syrian society. However, foreign media reports and investigations confirm that the regime’s media is involved in promoting unstated or obscure objectives.
The number of drug cases busted by the Syrian regime during 2021 has reached 9,575 cases, while the number of accused people in these cases has amounted to 12,088 persons, according to statistics by the Syrian Interior Ministry, announced by the Director of the National Committee for Narcotics Control Office, Major Hussam Azar.
According to the statistics, the quantity of seized drugs has amounted to 40 million, 610 thousand and 144 kilograms of hashish, four kilograms of heroin, 128 grams of cocaine, 113 kilograms of Indian cannabis seeds, 256 grams of methamphetamine, six kilograms of amphetamine, and about 16 million captagon pills and over 383,000 pills of psychiatric drugs.
Researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, who is interested in political economy, Ayman al-Dassouky, told Enab Baladi that the regime’s promotion of counter-narcotics efforts could be explained in two ways; the first is that the regime is lying under considerable internal and external pressure, as a result of multiple reports and lots of information indicating the involvement of networks associated with the regime in drug production, distribution and trafficking activities.
Al-Dassouky pointed out that the pressure is pushing the regime to try to deny accusations by demonstrating its role in combating drug business in Syria by busting a number of drug shipments and those behind them while eying support and cooperation from the Gulf States to deal with this “complex” file.
The second explanation is that the regime is using the drug file as a negotiating card by suggesting its ability to seize drug shipments to break its international isolation and obtain political and economic gains from countries targeted by Syrian drug shipments, mainly the Gulf States.
Even though these countries have clear information proving the regime’s involvement in the drug trade in Syria and the fact that they do not believe the regime’s claims about being serious in stopping the export of drug shipments to them, this does not eliminate the possibility that these countries might have reached some sort of a “settlement” with the regime concerning this file, al-Dassouky said.
Gulf States at top of countries targeted by Syria’s drug trade
Drug business booms as normalization with the regime accelerate
The US-based The National Interest website published a report saying that the accelerating normalization of relations between the regime and some regional governments in the region, namely Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the regime’s readmission to the communication network of the International Criminal Police Organization – Interpol, have made it increasingly difficult to counter or monitor the captagon trade.
Captagon trade has been on the radar of US national security agencies for years, but a lack of coordination, adequate monitoring, and strategic planning on how to successfully counter the trade between US departments and agencies have put the United States and its partners far behind the curve.
Captagon shipments continue to overwhelm regional law enforcement systems, with Saudi Arabia receiving millions of captagon pills camouflaged among licit goods like oranges, pomegranates, cocoa beans, and grapes at its land and maritime ports.
Jordan is also among the countries affected by Syria’s drug trade, as its forces lack the necessary resources and personnel to intercept all suspicious cross-border shipments and contend with violent cross-border clashes with traffickers.
The report also mentioned that the captagon trade has rapidly accelerated into a regional Mediterranean challenge after the Arab normalization of relations with the Syrian regime, demanding increased attention from the United States and its regional partners.
The report pointed out that the United States and its allies lack a coordination mechanism or a shared strategy to manage the captagon trade amid limited efforts by the drug control departments and lack of intelligence information shared between regional countries.
Jordan is struggling
On 12 January, the Jordanian army announced that during 2021 it had thwarted a total of 361 infiltration and smuggling attempts from Syria into Jordan, seizing about 15.5 million drug pills of various kinds, including captagon and tramadol, over 16,000 of hashish packets weighing approximately 760 kilograms, and two kilograms of heroin.
This January, a Jordanian officer was killed, and three border guards were injured during clashes with drug smugglers at the Syrian-Jordanian borders, according to a statement by the Jordanian army based on an official at the General Command of the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF).
Jordan, a transit country for the Syrian drug trade to Gulf markets that hosts nearly 1.6 million Syrian refugees who left their country following the 2011 uprising, has undertaken numerous security measures at its borders with Syria and stopped dozens of drug traffickers from entering Jordan.
Jordanian strategic expert Dr. Amer al-Sabayla told Enab Baladi that the drug issue has been affecting Syria’s neighboring countries since 2011 and that it is not limited to the Syrian regime’s areas as there are large areas outside the regime’s control. Still, the Syrian government’s neglect of this problem has led to the formation of drug groups and cartels closely linked to the regime.
Jordan’s concerns are increasing due to the rising attempts of drug smuggling from Syria into Jordan during 2021 and the current period. Recently, a large quantity of narcotic substances was found hidden in Syrian trucks passing through the main border crossing into the Gulf area.
At the same time, Jordan is in the process of normalizing relations and trust-building with the regime’s government. “This requires intelligence efforts and security coordination between the two parties, not facilitating such illicit activities,” al-Sabayla said, referring to the systematic smuggling of narcotics.
Iraq: A safe corridor
Iraq is also among the countries affected by Syria’s illicit narcotics business.
Iraq was considered a transit country for smuggling drugs from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to the Gulf States, particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Syria is the latest country to be added to the list of countries smuggling drugs through Iraq.
In October 2021, Iraqi authorities arrested two drug dealers, who were among the biggest drug dealers on the Syrian-Iraqi borders, without referring to their nationality.
In a statement via Facebook, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said that the Iraqi Intelligence Agency had arrested two of the biggest drug dealers with approximately 17 kilograms of drug pills.
The Syrian-Iraqi borders have witnessed increased drug smuggling activities, mainly the borders adjacent to the Syrian city of al-Bukamal in Deir Ezzor governorate, which is under the control of pro-Iranian militias, moving freely between Syrian and Iraqi territories.
The borderline between Syria and Iraq runs for a total length of 610 Kilometers, with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military wing of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), controlling the northern areas of the Syrian side to the north of al-Bukamal city.
The Iranian militias control the al-Bukamal border crossing, while on the other side of the Iraqi borders in the Qa’im district, the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that have been incorporated in the Iraqi army since 2018, are in control.
Drug distribution and trafficking activities from Syria to Iraq are not individual, as they are organized and conducted under state support, especially on the Syrian side, Iraqi political researcher, Shaho al-Qaradaghi, told Enab Baladi.
According to al-Qaradaghi, “Drug shipments enter Iraq to be transported to other countries, mainly Saudi Arabia through smuggling routes. Iraq is used as a transit country to travel narcotic substances to target countries.”
Investigations by Iraqi security services have revealed the Syrian security forces’ sponsorship for this trade of smuggled shipments, al-Qaradaghi said.
He added that the smuggling of drug shipments from Syria into Iraq could serve two goals at the same time. “This trade provides substantial revenues for the Syrian regime and a pressure card against Iraq and other targeted countries to obtain certain concessions in exchange for tightening its border security.”
What measures can Interpol take against Syrian drug traffickers?
The normalization of relations with the Syrian regime included both governments and international organizations, with the Interpol lifting corrective measures imposed on the regime on 5 October 2021. These measures have been in place since 2012.
The process of pursuing wanted persons is carried out by states, while police agencies specialized in drug control are the ones to arrest them and transfer them to the judiciary. Later, these individuals are punished according to the law of their state, since laws and provisions differ from one country to another, the head of the Syrian Legal Development Program (SLDP), Ibrahim Olabi, told Enab Baladi in a previous talk.
For example, if there are people who are affiliated with the Syrian regime and involved in drug smuggling, an arrest warrant can be issued against them in one of the European countries. Therefore, they cannot go to Europe because they are wanted or accused, also their names may be added to the sanctions lists. These are the two possible procedures that can be undertaken against drug traffickers.
If these people are outside Syria but live in Europe, they can be tried locally according to the hosting country’s law.
People accused of drug smuggling or other cases can refrain from coming to the country in which they are wanted, to evade prosecution and this limits their movement.
The US strategy has yet to materialize
Weak tools to disrupt drug networks
The accelerating growth of drug trade in Syria has raised the US’ concerns about the damage of this trade on one of its main partners in the region, namely the Gulf States. Therefore, the US embarked on combating this illicit drug trade through traditional law enforcement tools and capacities, the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper cited a spokesperson of the United States Department of State.
Drug trade is an illegal business worldwide, including its cultivation, manufacturer, distribution, and sale. In the declaration on the rule of international law, all member states recognized the importance of strengthening international cooperation in countering the world drug problem.
On 15 December 2021, two United States congressmen, French Hill (a representative for Arkansas state from the Republican Party) and Brendan Boyle (a representative for Pennsylvania state from the Democratic Party), submitted to Congress a bill requiring the US administration to develop a strategy among government agencies to disrupt and dismantle the drug trade and smuggling networks linked to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
Hill and Boyle released a statement saying, “It is important we stop this trafficking and source of illicit finance. If we fail to do so, then the Assad regime will continue to drive the ongoing conflict, provide a lifeline to extremist groups, and permit American adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran to strengthen their engagement there – posing an ever-larger threat to Israel and other partners in the region.”
In September 2020, Rep. Hill proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), considering it a first and necessary step for the United States to find a solution on the Syrian captagon trade and to determine ways to disrupt it, but the bill was dropped from the US Defense Department’s 2022 budget.
Former US Special Envoy for Syria: Sanctions are possible
Joel Rayburn, the former US Special Envoy for Syria, told Enab Baladi, “The omission of the counter-captagon strategy from the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was only a procedural matter, and there is a good chance that the Congress will address the captagon issue separately during 2022.”
Rayburn added, “The United States already has excellent authorities to be able to issue designations against international narco-traffickers, including by designating drug trafficking “kingpins” (a US law that targets high-profile foreign drug dealers, their organizations, and agents).
“These existing US laws can be brought to bear against the Assad regime and other captagon traffickers once the evidence is fully established,” Rayburn said.
On 15 December 2021, US President Joe Biden issued an executive order under the Kingpin Act authorizing the US Treasury Department in consultation with the US State Department to sanction foreign persons involved in the following:
- Parties which have engaged in, or attempted to engage in, activities or transactions that materially contributed to, or pose a significant risk of materially contributing to, the international proliferation of illicit drugs, including the facilitation of their production.
- Parties who knowingly received any property or interest in property known to constitute or derive from illicit activities or transactions, or parties who were used or intended to be used to commit or facilitate activities or transactions, that have materially contributed, or posed a significant risk of materially contributing to, the international proliferation of illicit drugs, including the facilitation of their production.
- Parties who provided, or attempted to provide, financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, any person described in 1 and 2 above or any sanctioned person.
- Parties determined to be or to have been a leader or official of any sanctioned person or any foreign person in any activity described in 1 and 2 above.
- Parties owned, controlled, or directed by, or to have acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, any sanctioned person.
Rayburn told Enab Baladi that “The first phase in disabling the Syrian drug network will not require many more capabilities or resources than Syria’s neighboring countries already have. The biggest requirement is to establish a mechanism for sharing information and conducting international law enforcement activities together.”
He added, “The countries of the Mediterranean and the Gulf region already have extensive counter-narcotics operations and capabilities; they simply need to pool those capabilities together and aim them at the narcotrafficking problem the Assad regime has created.”
Are the sanctions effective?
The Executive Director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), Mohammad al-Abdullah, told Enab Baladi that sanctions are Washington’s only card against the regime, but this card’s effectiveness is “weak” because the regime’s drug revenues outweigh the sanctions losses.
Al-Abdullah added that had the law establishing a drug combating mechanism against the regime been passed, it would have been possible for the US to use its intelligence services to track production, thwart smuggling operations, and support neighboring countries in controlling their borders and preventing smuggling.
The US dodging questions
Enab Baladi contacted the US State Department by email and asked for a comment on the omission of the proposed strategy to counter drug trade in Syria but received no answer on this subject.
While Washington is supposed to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime with regard to the drug file, the US administration is lifting sanctions designed under the Caesar Act against countries participating in the gas line project to supply Lebanon with power.
“We are deeply concerned about Lebanon’s acute energy crisis and its implications for the stability of the Lebanese state. The lack of fuel and power in Lebanon is threatening the delivery of critical services to the Lebanese people, such as health care and water,” an official from the US State Department said in response to the sanctions issue.
“We are in contact with the governments of Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, as well as the World Bank to gain a more complete understanding of how these arrangements will be structured and financed, and to ensure they are in line with US policy and address any potential sanctions concerns.”
“As Secretary Blinken has made clear, we have not lifted or waived Syria-related sanctions in this case or any other. Caesar Act Sanctions aim to hold the Syrian regime accountable for the atrocities inflicted upon its own people,” the US official added.
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