Attempts to dissuade Bashar al Assad from flooding the region with narcotics will be met with intransigence, underlined by deniability and theatricality.
On Sunday, the Jordanian military announced that one of its officers had been killed, and three of its soldiers wounded, in a firefight with smugglers on the Syrian border. This incident is the latest skirmish to take place at the kingdom’s border with Syria, which has become a flashpoint for occasional clashes between Jordanian forces and armed smugglers linked to the military-security establishment in Damascus.
Notably, Jordan is among a growing number of regional Arab states helping to rehabilitate the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Yet all of these states are struggling to stem the flow of illicit drugs originating from Syria, or in some cases, through vassal criminal organisations in Lebanon.
As Arab states seek to accelerate the momentum towards reintegrating Syria into the regional order, it is worth asking whether or not the drive towards normalisation can effectively be leveraged to dissuade Syrian leadership from flooding the Middle East with narcotics.
In all likelihood, the answer is a resounding no. The Assad regime’s transnational narcotics trade produces billions annually. Illicit revenue derived from the manufacture and sale of Captagon – a stimulant methamphetamine-like substance in particularly high demand among users in the Arab Gulf states – alone reportedly generates five to seven times the financial volume of the regime’s formal economy, in addition to comprising its main source of foreign currency.
A recent estimation put Captagon exports from Syria as reaching a street value of nearly $3.5 billion in 2020, while another investigation revealed that the amount intercepted by authorities across the globe in 2021 was worth $2.9 billion – more than triple that of Syria’s legal exports. Profits from the sale of hashish and crystal meth, while less noteworthy, have also produced substantial sums of cash for the regime and its cronies.
The Assad family drug empire
Given that Syria's formal economy has eroded, it is inconceivable that the regime would, at the current juncture, relinquish its narcotics industry, particularly as its productive economic zones remain largely outside of its territorial grasp. Persuading Assad to abandon his most lucrative export seems, for the foreseeable future, to be a remote prospect.
Even if trade with Arab states helps Assad meaningfully resuscitate Syria’s beleaguered economy and circumvent the perils of US sanctions, it cannot compensate for the profits accrued by narcotics trafficking. Bolstering Syria’s legitimate economy may produce benefits that trickle down to the general population, however marginally, but it is no substitute for the fortune-generating black market activities of the underworld that have helped the top echelons of the regime enrich themselves for decades.
Within this commercial realm, the drug trade has long played a particularly lucrative role in securing the material interests of the regime’s elite. To illustrate, Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976 and by 1982 Syrian authorities, having sensed an opportunity to expand their riches, had transformed the country into a regional hub for narcotics production specialised in the large-scale horticulture of hashish and heroin. In just six years, they succeeded in systematically increasing the total area of arable land devoted to the cultivation of marijuana in the Bekaa Valley from 10 to 90 percent.
Key loyalist officials within the Syrian state apparatus – from the minister of defence to the chief of military intelligence – benefitted directly from these operations, which were pioneered by then-President Hafez al Assad’s brother, Rifat, who, until his fall from grace, was commander of the regime’s pre-eminent military mobilisation, the notorious Defence Companies.
Organised crime has always primarily existed as a top-down affair, a mafia-style family business generally directed by important members of the Assad clan itself.
Today, the logistics of Syria’s narco-operations – from manufacturing to exports – are largely overseen by the ‘elite’ Fourth Armoured Division of the Syrian army, led by Maher al Assad, Bashar’s younger brother and the most reliable anchor of regime continuity. A vast network incorporating regime officers, Hezbollah operatives, and shadowy businessmen and war profiteers, together sustain this criminal enterprise.
Attempts to incentivise the regime’s leadership to abandon its multi-billion-dollar narcotics industry would mean harming the interests of an emboldened patchwork of parasitic actors that are heavily entrenched in the Syrian state. They will likely be met with the usual mixture of deniability and theatricality that have become central to Damascus’ politics.
Assad has long sought to navigate a domestic and foreign policy, cultivated by his father, that is predicated in part on the ability to engender, and simultaneously present his rule as the only possible solution to, a series of crises – a duplicitous strategy aptly characterised as the arsonist posing as the firefighter.
The post-2003 funnelling of Al Qaeda militants to neighbouring Iraq by the Syrian intelligence agencies, intended to destabilise the American occupation and disrupt any designs it had on the region, is a case in point. The regime's release of known religious extremists from its prisons at the start of the Syrian uprising, including seasoned fighters that it had previously supported, is another.
Following this pattern, Damascus is likely to retain control of these networks so that it can use its involvement in narcotics proliferation as a tool to negotiate re-engaging the West.
Relatedly, extracting genuine concessions from Damascus is notoriously difficult, as even its most resolute allies will attest. Former Soviet Ambassador to Damascus Nuritdin Mukhitdinov once said about Syria under Hafez that it accepts everything from the Soviet Union – except advice.
As the prime broker of Syrian affairs globally, Russia theoretically possesses more leverage over the Syrian regime than any other actor. Yet, time and again, its leadership has been frustrated by Assad’s intransigence – from his obstruction of the Syrian peace process to his undermining of Moscow’s attempt to build local partnerships in southern Syria.
Whether dealing with the intra-alliance competition underpinning Russian and Iranian relations in Syria, or the regional rivalry embroiling the Arab Gulf states, Iran, and Turkiye, Assad conceives that he can indefinitely leverage his unique position within the Middle East’s geopolitical theatre as a means to engage interested parties while shrewdly exploiting gaps in their strategic imperatives in order to avoid making any compromises.
This same logic is likely to apply to most matters currently under review, as the regime’s thawing of relations with the Arab world after more than 10 years of international isolation has reaffirmed, rather than challenged, its Machiavellian politics, both at home and abroad.
Amid the gravity of his actions over the past decade, the Arab states’ political overtures have reinforced the idea that, given the right strategies – and with the right allies – impunity is indeed possible. As such, they should not expect the dictator of Damascus to cooperate on matters of which he and his cronies have a vested interest, least of all their narcotics empire.
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