Why is the world ignoring how President Bashar al-Assad has turned Syria into a narco-state? This was the question addressed in one of the most important webinars I participated in during 2022 because it uniquely illustrated how the failure to hold the Assad regime, alongside Russia and Iran, accountable for some of the most horrific atrocities since the Holocaust is now helping to fuel an escalating international drugs epidemic across the Middle East. Dr. Rahaf Aldoughli, the Director of Research at the Harmoon Center in Istanbul, underlined at the webinar that while Syrians from all backgrounds might disagree about many things, they are united in their opposition to drugs. According to research carried out by the Harmoon Center, people living in all parts of Syria, in the regime and non-regime-controlled areas, shared a fundamental hostility towards drugs. However, they might not all be aware of the scale of the regime’s involvement in the drug business.

The Assad regime has a significant interest and role in Captagon production and distribution, which is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Captagon is often referred to as “the poor man’s cocaine” and is very popular across the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, which created an opportunity for the Assad regime to turn Syria into a narco-state possibly even bigger than Mexico. Charles Lister a leading Syria analyst, argued at the seminar that with estimates suggesting only 5 to 10% of international Captagon shipments are seized by the authorities, with a value of about 6 billion USD last year, the total market is probably somewhere between 60 and 120 billion USD. Given that Syria’s official exports are only 800 million USD, it is clear that Captagon is leading Syria’s export economy. Nevertheless, while the Assad regime is the dominant power in the Captagon trade, it is not the only drug mafia – Hezbollah, its Iranian-sponsored ally, is also a key actor. This is no surprise given the decades-long history of narcotics production and trade emanating from Lebanon.

Charles Lister argued that Captagon is now the glue that binds the three pillars of power in Syria together, with the regime, the crony elite, and the loyalist security institutions all earning considerable wealth from the burgeoning narcotics trade. Assad’s brother Maher, the head of the Fourth Armoured Division, is the key figure managing this most lucrative source of revenue. As a result, the Fourth Armoured Division has turned not only one of the most feared of the regime’s divisions but the regime itself into a full-scale drug dealing mafia, managing international distribution in close cooperation with Hezbollah.

While Captagon is generating considerable wealth for Assad, it is not being shared with the Syrian people, 90% of whom are living below the poverty line. Indeed, as many go hungry and aid is insufficient to meet the needs of the population, Assad is also using that wealth to thwart the impact of sanctions to maintain his torture prisons and his regime’s vast machinery of repression, which is reflected in the large number of security branches that help to sustain his power.

Against that background, it is even more troubling that Assad is allowed to exploit state sovereignty and his regime’s recognition by the United Nations, which is critical to the burgeoning narcotics trade that is causing considerable human misery both within Syria and across the region. For example, the decision to allow Syria to rejoin Interpol, the international police cooperation agency, is a clear sign of the international community’s failure to end impunity. Caroline Rose of the NewLines Institute, who is the only analyst to have published a major international report on Captagon and who also spoke at the seminar, described how on one recent occasion, as Assad regime representatives attended an Interpol meeting in the UAE to tackle the Captagon crisis, local authorities made a major Captagon bust at the international airport and seized a large shipment that appeared to have emerged from Syria! Allowing Assad to corrupt Interpol in this way to protect his illegal transnational drug empire not only defies belief but makes the international community complicit.

One initiative aimed at addressing the Captagon epidemic is the HR 6265 Captagon Act, the result of a bi-partisan campaign led by Republican Representative French Hill, which was passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden on 23 December 2022. The Captagon Act appeared to have been rebuffed repeatedly by the Biden administration, raising memories of President Obama’s infamous failure to act on his “red lines”, which many now see as having encouraged Assad to continue the annihilation of civilians and the use of chemical weapons as well as contributing to Putin’s decision to become militarily involved in the conflict in 2015, as I outlined in a previous article. The Captagon Act obliges the US Government to return to Congress with a strategy to combat the Captagon trade, and to dismantle and disrupt the production of the drug in Syria, within 180 days.

Nevertheless, as Dr. Aldoughli argued, in tackling the Captagon drug crisis it is important to take a holistic approach and acknowledge that while the Assad regime is the main and most powerful actor in the drug business in Syria, other elements among the opposition are also involved in northwest and northeast Syria. Dr. Aldoughli studied 55 peace processes since the end of the Cold War and drugs figured in a number of them, with the protagonists using them to advance their own agendas. Against that background, she noted that, under international pressure, the Assad regime was forced to end its significant involvement in the drug business with the Lebanese government when it occupied Lebanon in the 1990s.

Of course, it should be stressed that the Assad regime acted like a criminal enterprise well before it became involved in illegal drug dealing. Since it was founded by the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, the regime has systematically violated human rights – torturing, disappearing and killing its own citizens – crimes that escalated dramatically under Bashar as he sought to crush the peaceful uprising in 2011. Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a dictatorship and effectively governed through torture prisons and massacres and his son is continuing that tradition with impunity, actively assisted by Iran and Russia. Hafez al-Assad’s most notorious massacre was the systematic slaughter of anything up to 50,000 people in Hama in 1983 when crushing a rebellion launched by the Muslim Brotherhood. That pattern continues today with one huge difference: whereas the father destroyed one city in his brutal reign of terror, his son Bashar, with help from Russia and Iran, has turned the entire country into a blood bath, leveling multiple cities, towns and villages as he seeks to wipe out all opposition to his rule.

The United Nations is hamstrung in seeking to protect human rights and halt armed conflicts, especially intra-state conflicts, by the near reverence afforded to state sovereignty under international law and its charter. Nowhere is this more apparent than when a member state itself becomes a large-scale criminal enterprise. The Assad regime offers a prime and indeed egregious example since it began brutally crushing the peaceful uprising in 2011. Not only was the UN unable to stop that slaughter but it actually allowed itself to become complicit in 2012 when, by legal agreement, it handed over control of the most significant individual humanitarian aid budget for any state at the time (amounting to 3 billion USD on an annual basis). Control of aid has allowed the Assad regime to help fund the brutal suppression of dissent, which ironically has been meticulously recorded in the UN’s own human rights reports, especially by the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. Admittedly, support from Assad’s allies in Russia and Iran has also been critical, and given the importance attached to the protection of state sovereignty under the UN Charter, the Russians have successfully used their veto in the UN Security Council on multiple occasions to prevent any form of intervention to halt the regime’s brutality, even vetoing the referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court in 2014.

It is equally clear that the UN is in an invidious position as state sovereignty takes legal precedence over human security under its charter, with the principle further consolidated by the veto afforded to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This means we now confront an alarming question: after the Assad regime has not only engaged in torture, disappearances, and mass slaughter on an industrial scale since 2011, as well as turned the country into a narco-state, is the UN now reduced to an institution that is de facto forced to allow a criminal drug mafia to act with impunity? As many reports document the misappropriation of UN aid, we must equally confront the reality that the international community may also be complicit in helping to fund an organized crime organization of global significance. Tackling the Captagon crisis and the drug epidemic in Syria and the wider Middle East must become a priority, and at that same time, we must recognize that UN reform is even more urgent because of its failure to help create peace and a political settlement to end the extreme repression and civilian slaughter by the regime since 2011.

Please click below to watch the full webinar.

Webinar: Why Is the World Ignoring the Assad Regime Turning Syria into a Nacro-State | Harmoon Center