The Arab League has recognised that Syria has become a ‘narco-country’, spreading deadly drugs across neighbouring borders, and wants this to stop.
Last month, the foreign ministers of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordon met in the Jordanian capital Amman to discuss how to normalise ties with Syria as part of a political settlement of a war which had shattered and divided the country. It’s now 12 years since Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad brutally cracked down on the popular uprising in the country against his leadership, which eventually claimed about half a million lives and displaced another 13 million people. Waves of refugees desperately tried to escape the indiscriminate barrel bombing and poison gas attacks by the Assad regime, crimes which resulted in Syria being expelled from the Arab League, a loose alliance of 22 Arab countries pledged to cooperate on economic and military affairs.
After many years of prevarication and hand-wringing, the Arab League has now decided to bring Syria in from the cold. Pictures have appeared of the besuited secular Syrian President being warmly welcomed back to the League by the bearded turban-wearing Islamic cleric-cum-President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi. Over the course of the bloody civil war in Syria, Tehran has proved the staunchest of allies, along with Moscow, in helping to save the Assad regime.
Back in late 2011, when Syria was censured and expelled, many Arab states were clearly planning for a post-Assad era. But it was Russia’s military involvement in Syria in 2015 that changed the course of the civil war and forced its neighbours to begin thinking of a future that left Assad in place.
As President Assad began to consolidate his position with the help of Moscow, Arab moves to restore ties accelerated after the massive earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in February this year and the rush to bring aid. Then came the China-brokered reestablishment of relations between the regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran, countries which supported opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.
The result of this complex multidimensional game of political chess being played in the Middle East was a beaming President Assad and his wife, Asma, being greeted in Oman and the United Arab Emirates last month, while Syria’s Foreign Minister scuttled off to Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Jordan to discuss the return of Syria to the Arab fold.
But why the rush by the Arab League to restore relations with Syria?
A clue was contained in the final statement after the Amman meeting, which said that officials had discussed pathways for the voluntary return home of millions of displaced Syrians and “coordinated efforts to combat drug trafficking across Syria’s borders”. It said that Damascus had agreed to “take the necessary steps to end smuggling on the borders with Jordan and Iraq and work over the next month to identify who was producing and transporting narcotics into the two countries.” In other words, the Arab League recognised that Syria has become a “narco-country”, spreading deadly drugs across neighbouring borders, and want this to stop.
This is almost certainly wishful thinking. Last April the European Union, together with the US, accused the Syrian government itself of becoming a central player in “the production of the amphetamine drug, Captagon”, as well as large-scale drug trafficking operations. The EU cited Wassim al-Assad and Samer al-Assad, two relatives of President Bashir who had been earlier sanctioned by the US, two Lebanese nationals, and nearly a dozen other people for their suspected role in the trade of the drug. The EU further placed sanctions on the notorious 4th Division of the Syrian army, led by the President’s younger brother Maher al-Assad, alleged to be heavily involved in the production and trafficking of Captagon particularly in the Latakia, Homs, and Aleppo regions of Syria.
Captagon is one of several brand names for the drug compound fenethylline hydrochloride. A stimulant with addictive properties, it is widely used recreationally across the Middle East and is sometimes called a “poor man’s cocaine”. Also touted by media as “The Jihadists Drug”, it’s commonly used by armed groups and regular forces in battle situations, where it is seen as having properties that boost courage and numb fears. The research organisation Centre for Operational Analysis and Research, which focuses on Syria, recently published a report highlighting the role of Captagon and hashish in the country whose economy has been crippled by a decade of war, Western sanctions, entrenched corruption, and the collapse of Lebanon, where billions of dollars have disappeared in the pit of the country’s banking system. “Syria is a narco-state with two primary drugs of concern: hashish and Captagon”, the report says.
“It is the global epicentre of Captagon production, which is now more industrialised, adaptive, and technically sophisticated than ever”. Syria currently produces 80% of the world’s Captagon and with a market value of at least $10 billion in 2021, many of Syria’s businessmen close to Assad, together with the country’s plethora of warlords, have now morphed into druglords. Captagon trafficking quickly became an economic lifeline for the Assad regime, a windfall that was able to offset the devastating economic effects of the civil war and Western sanctions.
So can the regime afford to give up its Captagon business? Many believe not, as the stakes are far too high for the actors involved. Moreover, many officials who are closely aligned with the Assad regime would have no incentive to stop production.
Following the Amman meeting, Assad made a show of tackling drug smuggling across Syria’s borders. Just a week after Damascus, Assad vowed to “take the necessary steps” to end smuggling on the borders with Jordan and Iraq, Merhi al-Ramthan, the Captagon “kingpin”, was killed along with his entire family in southern Syria during an air raid believed to be carried out by Jordan on information provided by Damascus. But rather than indicating the future direction of travel of the government, this may only have been a form of reassurance to Syria’s neighbours that something is being done to control the thriving drug trade. Neighbouring Arab League countries that are also victims of the Captagon trade, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are particularly eager to see an industry which is having a catastrophic effect on sections of their population shut down.
Assad naturally denies any organised efforts by his government to profit from Captagon, and it came as no surprise that he did not publically discuss the drug trade when he received the overtly warm welcome in Jeddah shortly before his country’s formal reacceptance into the Arab League on 19 May. Experts believe that Assad will move to give up a number of traffickers who are not closely aligned with his regime, but it is very unlikely that he will touch some of the core backers, such as his cousin Wassim al-Assad. Assad’s leveraging of the Captagon trade was a major reason why Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, and while many believe that he has been weakened by the 12-year civil war, the profitable Captagon trade shows that Assad can still inflict harm in the region.
“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” said the Chinese general and military strategist Sun-Tzu in 400 BC. This is why the Arab League has welcomed narco-Syria in from the cold.
- John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth. John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.