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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Drug Dealing in Syria: An Issue with International Dimensions

Drug Dealing in Syria
Syrian police show seized drugs and captagon pills at the Drug Enforcement Administration in the capital Damascus, on January 4, 2016. LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

Hussein Al Zoubi

Narcotics production and smuggling from Syria worsened during the recent few years to the point where it turned into an international issue.

That prompted United States Congressmen to vote in October 2021 on the necessity to develop an interagency strategy to dismantle narcotics-affiliated networks thought to be operating in the shadow of the Syrian regime. Also, the bill would present a detailed report on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his family members’ net wealth, including his cousins.

Der Spiegel blew the whistle before the members of Congress on Assad’s family networks. According to the German newspaper, the source of the seized amphetamine in Italy was Samer Kamal al-Assad, one Bashar’s relatives. Among several laboratories run by the Assad family, Kamal al-Assad owns a drug production lab in Al-Bassah, south of Latakia. Der Spiegel also unravelled that Abdul Latif Hamida, a Syrian businessman, is the one who mediates drug trafficking. Hamida is neither on the US nor the EU sanctions maps.

The Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) released a study that described Syria as becoming a global centre for producing Captagon. According to this study, Syria’s product exports amounted to $3.46 billion. In the same context, Le Monde described Bashar al-Assad as “the Head of the Captagon trafficking in the Middle East,” especially after he took over the Islamic State-controlled regions. The latter developed the Captagon industry to be smuggled either to Turkey or pro-Assad regions.

Before Going International

Before 2011, Syria was a passage for narcotics smuggled from Afghanistan and Iran to the Gulf countries. At that time, the locally produced narcotics were limited. The Neirab camp in the countryside of Aleppo became an infamous hotbed for the production and promotion of heroin and hashish in the shadows of the head of the State Security branch at the time, General Omar Hamida, a resident of the region. According to Jusoor Center for Studies, the Hamida family used the influence of the general. He was close to late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Years after, businessman Abdel Latif Hamida, a member of the same family, was responsible for the famously seized shipment in Italy.

According to the same source, Shaaban Berri and Abdul Malek Berri were famous for narcotics trafficking and production before 2011. They are two tribal figures who allied themselves with the regime and benefited from this cover. They were active in drug manufacturing in their stronghold in Tal al-Zarazeer in the countryside of Aleppo. After 2011, the Berri family formed an armed militia affiliated with the Syrian regime and the so-called auxiliary forces. Before that, in the 1990s, some families became famous in northern Aleppo and Qalamun in Rif Dimashq and were connected to international networks in Colombia, Italy, and others.

In a report written by the Middle East affairs expert Jean-Pierre Filiu, Le Monde goes even further in time. According to the report, “When Hafez al-Assad sent his army to occupy much of Lebanon in 1976, he wasted no time in taking his tithe on the already flourishing hashish in the Lebanese plain of Bekaa.” The former Syrian president encouraged the development of poppy cultivation there. Laboratories for processing locally produced opium into heroin were set up under the control of the occupying Syrian army. Filiu adds: “The barons of the Assad regime who manage this traffic with great profit recruit for this purpose in Syria bands of gangsters, nicknamed Chabbiha.”

In his historical presentation, Pierre Filiu says: “General Ali Douba, head of military intelligence, headed this de facto cartel, before being marginalised by Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez, in 2000, as the absolute leader of Syria. Under popular pressure, the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon in 2005 completed the closure of this first mafia cycle of the Syrian dictatorship.”

The Second Cycle

Manufacturers of Captagon pills in Syria modify the original substance initially used to treat ADHD. After 2011, these pills gained popularity among the militants. They provide their abusers with a feeling of strength, courage and euphoria. With time, using these pills turns into an addiction. By increasing the dose to ensure the continuation of the positive feeling, side effects such as depression and cardiotoxicity appear. However, this was not the only reason behind increasing the production of this substance, but rather for profit, especially after the deterioration of the Syrian economy.

The list of the most famous Captagon production factories includes Al-Bassah factory, supervised by Samer al-Assad, a carton packaging factory in the Sheikh Najjar area, northeast of Aleppo, directed by Abdul Latif Hamida, the Dweir al-Shawa factory, south of Latakia, supervised by Wassim al-Assad, and the Al-Qaterji labs, located in several Aleppo neighbourhoods. Hezbollah has factories spread in Homs, Daraa and Rif Dimashq. Networks linked to the armed opposition factions supervise some factories in north-western Syria.

According to information published by the New York Times, the Captagon factories hang “closed military zone” signs protected by soldiers. Armed men control illegal crossings for drug traffic, whether through the ports of Tartus and Latakia, which are monitored by Western intelligence services. The New York Times also referred to the report made by Jean-Pierre for the Le Monde, which gave some information about the routes meant to smuggle drugs across the Turkish, Iraqi, and Jordanian borders to Europe and the Gulf countries.

Among the most known smuggling routes are the Syrian-Lebanese borders through Western Qalamun, Zabadani and Madaya in Rif Dimashq, and Al-Qusayr in Homs countryside, all of which are under the control of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Also, smuggling operations occur along the Jordanian borders. However, shipments targeting the Gulf region must pass through the official crossing, “Nasib Border Crossing,” as Captagon pills are mixed with different shipments such as chocolate and others. In the north, there are two axes, the first is northwest of Aleppo, through Nubl and Zahraa, reaching Turkey, and the second is located northeast of Aleppo, from Dayr Hafir to Manbij, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, all the way to the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Sea smuggling goes through the port of Latakia and the port of Beirut. The first is used as a main smuggling line to Europe and Africa. The port of Beirut was used as a secondary line for various types of narcotics manufactured in Syria before the port’s explosion on Aug. 4, 2020. Among the shipments that passed through the port of Beirut were a shipment seized by the UAE authorities in 2014 and included 14 million Captagon pills wrapped among corn kernels.

Economy and Other Things

Drug Dealing in Syria
A picture taken during a tour origanized by the Jordanian Army shows soldiers patrolling along the border with Syria to prevent trafficking, on February 17, 2022. Drug trafficking from Syria into Jordan is becoming “organised” with smugglers stepping up operations and using sophisticated equipment including drones, Jordan’s army said, warning of a shoot-to-kill policy. Since the beginning of this year, Jordan’s army has killed 30 smugglers and foiled attempts to smuggle into the kingdom from Syria 16 million Captagon pills — more than they seized in the whole of 2021 — the military said. Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP

The Captagon industry and trade generate enormous amounts of money, which the regime and other forces controlling the land need. But that is not the only reason for this industry’s growth. Captagon has become one of the leaders’ tools to impose control over their fighters, most of whom have reached the stage of addiction, thus, complete submission to their leaders. Also, they seek to flood society with this substance and target the youth, which has been the backbone of Syria in both directions over the past decade. Thus, recruiting them, whether in combat or intelligence, becomes easy.

Drugs are among the main factors that strike societies. Spreading them leads to a high level of crime and chaos. In this context, observers believe that the increased pumping of Captagon towards the Gulf countries through Jordan does not depart from this purpose, in addition to the economic goal.

Since 2018, that is, after the regime took control of the opposition areas in southern Syria, the drug smuggling attempts across the border with Jordan to reach the Arab Gulf have increased.

That is confirmed by Jordanian journalist Nidal Mansour, founder of the Center for Defending and Freedom of Journalists, in an article: “In the past months, narcotics smuggling from the Syrian border has increased. Sometimes, arms were smuggled with narcotics as well. All this was accompanied by the concentration and control of militias closely affiliated with Iran on areas near the Jordanian border and the remnants of ISIS approaching adjacent areas.”

Mansour added: “The Jordanian authorities noticed that narcotics smuggling operations has increased and became more organised, deploying developed technologies and drones in the process. Decision-making circles are concerned with the information confirming that these operations are managed by organised cartels coordinating with armed militias.”

The Jordanian army had announced that it had thwarted 361 drug infiltration and smuggling attempts last year, an average of one attempt every day, and that it had seized more than 15 million Captagon pills. This announcement came days after the Jordanian army clashed on the Syrian border and killed 27 smugglers who tried to sneak into Jordan late last month.

This was preceded by another attempt that resulted in the killing of three members of the Jordanian army, including a captain.

Perhaps this is what prompted Jordan to change the rules of engagement that were in place before that and informed the Syrian leadership, “If you do not act, we will protect our borders.” At the same time, the Saudi Arabian customs announced that it had thwarted five attempts to smuggle more than 1.4 million Captagon pills, which were found hidden in several trucks and vehicles coming to the Kingdom, through the Haditha land port with Jordan.

Whatever the reasons, and whoever is behind this industry, the unshakable fact remains that Syria has become its hub.

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