SDF takes on new role combating “regime narcotics”

An Internal Security Forces’ scene chasing drug promoters in the city of Raqqa, northeast Syria - February 26, 2024 (Screenshot/Asayish)

An Internal Security Forces’ scene chasing drug promoters in the city of Raqqa, northeast Syria - February 26, 2024 (Screenshot/Asayish)


In separate announcements, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) said it had seized two drug shipments in its areas of control coming from areas under the control of the Syrian regime.

The largest in terms of the amount of drugs seized was on March 4, when the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military wing of the Autonomous Administration, announced an operation targeting a drug warehouse in the city of Manbij. They managed to seize 20 million narcotic pills coming from the coastal city of Tartus.

At the time, they indicated that the narcotic pills were placed inside the road dividing stones in a very professional manner.

On February 29, the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) affiliated with the Autonomous Administration, said they had seized 164,000 pills of the narcotic Captagon in the city of Raqqa and later found that they were smuggled into the area from Homs province where the Syrian regime is in control.

Asayish then released a video recording of a security operation, claiming it was a pursuit of drug promoters in the area and that they seized a “large amount” of Captagon in their possession.

The regime establishes distribution centers

The issue of drug trafficking in Syria has long been raised as one of the economic and political files that primarily benefit the Syrian regime.

The smuggling operations starting from southern Syria towards Jordan constantly make the news, with Jordan continually announcing the seizure of shipments coming from Syria, aiming to reach the Gulf Arab states.

The American New York Times newspaper said in December 2021 that the Fourth Division of the Syrian regime forces led by Maher al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother, is responsible for the manufacture of Captagon substance and its export, in addition to dominating the trade by businessmen closely related to the regime, Hezbollah, and other members of the Assad family.

A study issued by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) at the end of April 2021 clarified that Syria has become a global center for the production of the narcotic Captagon and that it has become more advanced in drug manufacturing than ever before.

In 2020, the value of Syria’s exports of Captagon alone was more than 3.46 billion US dollars, according to the COAR center.

The research assistant at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Osama Sheikh Ali, told Enab Baladi that the arrival of drugs to the areas of control of the Autonomous Administration can be seen as an attempt by the regime to find new distribution points towards Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey.

He added that since the area controlled by the Autonomous Administration is outside its control, establishing a drug distribution center there might be a way to absolve itself from responsibility for these shipments.

Sheikh Ali believes that this applies to areas in northwestern Syria where the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), the political umbrella for the Syrian National Army (SNA), is in control.

The combat is in the interest of the SDF

For years, the Autonomous Administration has been trying to present itself as if it manages its areas of control in an organized manner, acting as an effective governmental body, whether through local laws, elections, etc.

Researcher Osama Sheikh Ali linked the announcements by the SDF and the Autonomous Administration regarding the drug seizures, with their attempts to present themselves as effective local entities in the combat process, especially with the international parties’ inability to fight smuggling operations.

He added that the Autonomous Administration’s announcement that the source of the drugs is the areas under the regime’s control is “a disavowal of responsibility for it and attributing it to the Syrian regime” to avoid any consequences that may result from the presence of these drugs in the area.


With the growth of the roles of non-state actors in Syria, and the failure of Arab roles, especially Jordan, to confront drug smuggling operations, these local entities are now presenting themselves as an effective force that can be relied upon in the fight against drugs, thus gaining political benefits through recognition as a disciplined power that can be depended on.

Osama Sheikh Ali, Research Assistant at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies


Taking on a new role

The International Coalition Forces (comprising 86 countries) led by the United States, is the main supporter of the SDF in Syria and is also engaged in combating drugs from the Syrian regime, cooperating with Jordan and local Syrian parties in this regard.

The coalition had previously trained fighters from the Autonomous Administration’s Internal Security in counter-narcotics tactics.

Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the Autonomous Administration is working to take on a new role in the context of fighting drugs, especially those coming from areas under the regime’s control.

The narcotics control activity for the Autonomous Administration also aligns with the anti-narcotics bill enacted by the United States in September 2022, to fight “Assad’s drugs,” according to Shawakh.

The researcher considered the training operations conducted by the coalition forces for the Internal Security on counter-narcotics tactics as one of the reasons for the continuous announcements by the Autonomous Administration of these shipments’ seizures.

He added that showcasing these training results and the efficacy of the support provided to them in the fight against narcotics requires demonstrating the outcomes of the training, thus controlling trade and smuggling operations of drugs in their areas of control.

East Syrian narcotics

While the announcements by the Autonomous Administration about seizing narcotics have not stopped over the past years, the use of medicinal substances is widespread in its areas of control and among fighters in the SDF.

According to interviews conducted by Enab Baladi through its correspondent in Deir Ezzor, with SDF military personnel from the region itself, narcotics, especially medicinal ones, have recently become popular among the military ranks, facilitated by their widespread availability and sold inside pharmacies without prescriptions.

In a report prepared by the Justice for Life organization (founded in 2015) about the spread of narcotics in Deir Ezzor governorate, it said that the promotion of narcotic pills in areas under SDF control began secretly and escalated publicly.

With no pursuit, accountability or punishment for promoters, narcotic pills are openly sold in Deir Ezzor at low prices, and are purchasable by various demographics.

According to the report, there is nothing to counter the spread of this phenomenon other than the efforts of local residents through campaigns in mosques and public councils to raise awareness of the dangers of these substances, but these campaigns lack the necessary organization and support.


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