Powerful associates and relatives of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have turned the country into a “new narco-state on the Mediterranean,” according to a report Sunday.
The New York Times said the illegal drug industry they “built on the ashes of 10 years of civil war” has become a multibillion-dollar operation, eclipsing Syria’s legal exports.
According to the report, its main product is captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
“Its operations stretch across Syria, including workshops that manufacture the pills, packing plants where they are concealed for export, and smuggling networks to spirit them to markets abroad,” it said.
The newspaper said its investigation is based on “information from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and dozens of interviews with international and regional drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade and current and former United States officials.”
The Times claimed that according to its investigation, much of the production and distribution is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, who is also the younger brother of Assad.
“Major players also include businessmen with close ties to the government, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other members of the president’s extended family, whose last name ensures protection for illegal activities,” it said.
“The drug trade emerged in the ruins of a decade of war which shattered Syria’s economy, reduced most of its people to poverty and left members of Syria’s military, political and business elite looking for new ways to earn hard currency and circumvent American economic sanctions,” the newspaper added.
According to the report, “illicit speed is now the country’s most valuable export, far surpassing its legal products.”
Hundreds of millions of pills that were seized in recent years by officials in Greece, Italy, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere mostly originated from one government-controlled port in Syria, according to the report.
Noting that officials in Italy found 84 million pills hidden in rolls of paper and metal gears last year while Malaysians discovered 94 million pills sealed inside rubber trolley wheels in March, the daily reported citing drug experts that these seizures might represent only a fraction of the drugs shipped.
“More than 250 million captagon pills have been seized across the globe so far this year, more than 18 times the amount captured just four years ago,” it noted.
Citing regional security experts, the Times also noted that the main obstacle in fighting the drug trade is that it has the support of "a state that has little reason to help shut it down."
“The idea of going to the Syrian government to ask about cooperation is just absurd,” the newspaper quoted Joel Rayburn, a US special envoy for Syria during former President Donald Trump’s administration, as saying.
“It is literally the Syrian government that is exporting the drugs. It is not like they are looking the other way while drug cartels do their thing. They are the drug cartel.”
Syria has been ravaged by civil war since early 2011, when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protesters.