Are Assad’s narcotics heading north instead of south?

Elements of the military police in the Syrian National Army after seizing a quantity of drugs in northwestern Syria - March 24, 2024 (Interim Government's Ministry of Defense)

Elements of the military police in the Syrian National Army after seizing a quantity of drugs in northwestern Syria - March 24, 2024 (Interim Government's Ministry of Defense)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Repeated announcements by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) about seizing drug shipments in its controlled areas of northern Syria, which were prepared to be smuggled into Turkey, have occurred three times during the current March.

The most recent of these announcements was published by the Interim Government, on March 24, stating that it had arrested one of the major drug dealers, with 500,000 Captagon pills and 220 bags of hashish in his possession, coming from areas under the regime’s control, and were prepared to be smuggled into Turkey, in the city of Ras al-Ain, west of al-Hasakah province.

The Interim Government’s announcements coincided with others published by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which were much larger in number, stating that its elements raided a drug storehouse in the city of Manbij, where they seized quantities of drugs, and it later turned out that they were coming from the coastal city of Tartus where the Syrian regime has control.

And through its official website, on March 4, the SDF added that its forces raided a warehouse near Manbij’s al-Hal market, where they found 20 million Captagon pills, which were placed within the stones used for road pavements in a way described as “very professional”.

While both sides point to the Syrian regime as responsible for the entry of these drugs into their controlled areas, smuggling of Captagon southwards towards Jordan and the Gulf countries has not ceased for years, and the regime is accused by international parties of being behind it.

Drugs as the regime’s weapon

Over the past years, reports by specialized agencies and journalistic investigations, based on evidence, have proven the involvement of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s family and his regime’s insiders, in particular, in manufacturing drugs and trafficking by exporting them from Syria to other countries.

The most prominent was an investigation published by the American newspaper, The New York Times, on December 5, 2021, which proved that the 4th Division of the regime’s forces, led by Maher al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother, is responsible for manufacturing Captagon and exporting it, in addition to being led by businessmen with close ties to the regime, Hezbollah, and other members of the Assad family.

This was preceded, in April 2021, by a study issued by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) that stated Syria had become a global center for the production of Captagon, and that it had become more technologically advanced in manufacturing drugs than ever before.

In the year 2020 alone, the value of Syria’s Captagon exports amounted to more than three billion US dollars, according to the study.

On the other hand, the director of the Syrian regime’s National Drug Control Committee’s office, Hussam Azar, denied journalistic reports and studies issued by specialized research centers, which confirmed that “Syria has turned into a drug state,” considering them to carry “wrong and misleading information”.

And during an interview with him on the local Al-Mashhad Online website, on January 11, 2022, Azar added that these reports “fabricate the numbers” it mentions about the trade and production of drugs in Syria, as they are based on “open sources and not present in Syria”, considering that anyone working in operational drug control can “expose the falseness of these numbers”.

The drug trade and smuggling brought political gains to the Syrian regime that began to take shape in early 2023, when the regime was returned to its seat in the Arab League following an initiative proposed by Jordan with a set of conditions at its forefront, the cessation of Captagon smuggling towards Jordan and the Arab Gulf states.

Change in strategy?

The increasing pace of drug smuggling in northern Syria has raised questions about whether the northern border with Turkey will witness a scenario similar to what is happening on the Jordanian border south of Syria, but experts and researchers have downplayed the significance of the pace increase.

The Turkish expert in foreign policies and security, Ömer Özkizilcik, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime has, for a long time, been making efforts to smuggle Captagon into Turkey, but its ability was very limited and remains so to this day.

He added that a scenario similar to Jordan’s is unlikely on the borders with Turkey, as Turkish military presence across the border and the “alliance” with the Interim Government and the Syrian National Army (SNA) provide mechanisms to prevent the same scenario from happening.

The expert believes that the Turkish strategy in Syria aims primarily to protect the Turkish borders from terrorism and migration, but nonetheless, this strategy also serves border security broadly, such as preventing drug smuggling.

For his part, the director of the Syrian program at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, Karam Shaar, believes that the smuggling of drugs from Syria towards Turkey is not intended to target the Turkish local market, but rather it is a transit point towards the Arab Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait.

He added that drug smuggling via Turkey towards the Gulf states has been popular for about two years, but this popularity will not increase as it is an economically costly route for the Syrian regime, considering it longer in terms of distance, and passing through several control zones.

He pointed out that the drug smuggling route via Iraq towards the Arab states is the most feasible in export operations and will be the most popular in the coming years, especially since this trade is more active through it than the southern Syrian border.

Not new

Drug smuggling operations from Syria to Turkey are not new, as the Turkish authorities had previously seized, in April 2022, 403 kilograms of Captagon in two trucks, when they entered from the Bab al-Hawa (Cilvegözü) border crossing.

The volume of drugs intercepted by the Turkish customs teams amounted to 2,422,110 Captagon pills, weighing a total of 403 kilograms, and eight people, including the truck drivers, were arrested.

In the same month, quantities of drugs were also seized with two individuals as they entered Turkish territory from Syria, and another amount was found through searches on the border of Van province.

Wael Alwan, a researcher specializing in political affairs at the Jusoor Center for Studies, believes that the Syrian regime is accustomed to a “black income” through drug trafficking to neighboring countries, which acts as an incentive to expand the scope of drug smuggling operations to its neighbors, as became apparent over the past years.

The researcher pointed out that the Syrian regime is not considered the sole center of this trade; rather, the decision to expand the export of drugs also depends on the Lebanese Hezbollah, the 4th Division, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Dr. Karam Shaar, an economist, opines that the manufacturing and exportation of drugs are publicly attributed in Syria to the Syrian regime primarily, yet “there is sufficient evidence” of drug production within areas controlled by the Syrian National Army allied with Turkey.

Among the regions outside of regime control, Shaar mentioned that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are the only two areas in Syria where there is no evidence of drug production.

The regime learns the wrong lessons

At a time when the regime benefits politically from the drug trade and manufacturing in re-floating itself and restoring its relations with Arab countries, Turkish expert Ömer Özkizilcik sees the regime using smuggling as a weapon and a primary financial source, with the regime long becoming the “world’s biggest drug mafia.”

He added that al-Assad aspires today to expand his drug income as much as possible.

Özkizilcik believes the regime has learned the wrong lessons from Arab normalization, thinking it can achieve political gains by creating problems for its neighbors, something it tries to do with Turkey, but will most likely fail due to what he called “the positive role of the Syrian Interim Government.”

While the Syrian regime continues to report thwarting smuggling operations or arresting networks and individuals involved in drug smuggling internally, recent focus has been on involving other countries in the case and presenting Syrian territory as a passageway and receiver, not an exporter, of drugs.


النسخة العربية من المقال

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