Assad has turned Syria into a narco factory

By Manish Rai

In 2011, after the countrywide protests against the Syrian government, which was followed by the brutal state crackdown on anti-Assad protesters, Syria descended into a bloody civil war. Internationally isolated and ravaged by fighting, the country plunged deep into an economic crisis and never recovered. Although Damascus denies any involvement in the dirty business of narcotics. Most of the geopolitical analysts monitoring the Syrian conflict are of the view that the production and smuggling of proscribed drugs brings in cash worth billions of dollars for Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad, his associates, and allies. It would be right to say that this narco money serves as a vital economic lifeline for the cash-strapped Syrian ruling elites. Powerful and influential associates and extended family members of the Syrian president are making and selling captagon, an illegal amphetamine on a mammoth scale. Syria, before the civil war used to be a regional hub for pharmaceuticals but now unfortunately it has become the Arab world’s biggest exporter of captagon, eclipsing even Lebanon’s production. The country was one of the biggest pharma producers in the Middle East. Hence, it had the needed components and infrastructure like experts to mix drugs, factories to make products for the concealment of captagon pills, and access to Mediterranean shipping lanes through Latakia port. In addition to this Syria had established smuggling routes to Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. This was viewed as a good opportunity by the Syrian government to replenish its coffers after years of war and economic sanctions.

The hard and ugly reality in Syria is that the regime of President Assad is not cooperating with or facilitating the drug cartels in return for bribes. But it’s the other way around. Almost all the drug dealers work for the government because the state apparatus itself operates as the biggest drug cartel in the country. An investigative study by The New York Times found out that much of the production and distribution of narcotics is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother and one of Syria’s most powerful men. It was further revealed that the security bureau of the Fourth Division, headed by Maj. Gen. Ghassan Bilal, provides much of the network’s nervous system. According to regional security and intelligence officials and a former Syrian military officer, the bureau’s troops protect many of the factories and ease the movement of drugs to Syria’s borders and the port of Latakia.

This illicit trade is not only assisting the Syrian regime with cash flow but also serving as the bargaining chip in negotiations with the Arab world. Damascus has leveraged its narcotics industry to facilitate normalization with its Arab neighbors. Yet, Syrian narcotics continue to flood the region, which clearly illustrates that the Syrian regime acted deceitfully. They just exchanged hollow promises for real diplomatic gains. Assad convinced Amman, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh that he would cooperate with them on counter-narcotics initiatives if they backed Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League. The result? Syria regained its seat in the league. But after a few months’ break, the industrial-scale production of narcotics in Syria and its distribution into Jordan and the Gulf states continued undeterred. Now, some states, such as Jordan, are experiencing buyer’s remorse, realizing that they cannot take back their concessions, but Assad can break his word at any time.

The Syrian regime also put efforts into diversifying its narco portfolio despite being the biggest producer of captagon, an addictive, amphetamine-type stimulant they flirted with other hard drugs also like Methamphetamine. Captagon requires only slight modifications to produce methamphetamine commonly known as Crystal Meth, which is more dangerous than captagon. Not only is it more addictive, but the risks associated with its abuse are more severe. Crystal, however, fetches much more money compared to captagon so the regime has become a major supplier for it as well. The emergence of hard drug production in Syria on an industrial scale appears to be setting the country on the path of rogue states like- North Korea, which uses illicit activities as a cornerstone for its foreign revenue.

To eliminate or at least severely damage this free flow of narcotics in the region, the United Nations should work with regional countries towards developing a multi-dimensional counternarcotics strategy. On the supply side, multilateral efforts should focus on identifying chemical precursor flows and money laundering networks associated with the Syrian narco-trade. Then, focused efforts should be made to destroy these networks. On the other hand, to curb the demand for Syrian narcotics, Western countries, including the United States, can help regional actors strategize on how to best reduce demand at home, including through the expansion of treatment facilities and public information campaigns. By putting in joint efforts, the international powers and regional states can demonstrate to the Assad regime that his narco-blackmail won’t work anymore.

(The author is a columnist and geopolitical analyst for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and can be reached at [email protected])

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