Syria blasts evacuation of White Helmets as ‘criminal’

Syrian rescuers, known as White Helmets, recover bodies in Zardana, in the mostly rebel-held northern Syrian Idlib province, following air strikes in the area late on June 7, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 23 July 2018

Syria blasts evacuation of White Helmets as ‘criminal’

  • Israel said it had helped with the evacuation at the request of US President Donald Trump and other leaders
  • The Syrian government has accused the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, of being agents of foreign enemies

DAMASCUS: The Syrian government on Monday condemned a multilateral operation to evacuate hundreds of rescue workers from the war-torn country as a “criminal process” intended to de-stabilize Syria.
Syrian authorities have long described the Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, which are popularly known as the White Helmets, as a terror organization.
The group rose to prominence as it filmed its operations to rescue civilians from Syrian government airstrikes in the country’s brutal civil war. The government has said the group stages videos. Damascus’s ally Russia has accused the group of staging chemical weapons attacks on civilians and blaming them on the government, a charge that has never been proven.
On Saturday, more than 400 rescuers and their family members were evacuated from Syria’s Quneitra province through Israel to Jordan, after the rebels surrendered the last areas they held in the southwestern province to the government.
Syria’s foreign ministry called it a “smuggling operation” that was evidence of a Western conspiracy to overthrow the government. The White Helmets have financial backing from the US, Britain, and other nations.
The unprecedented operation was spearheaded by the US, Canada, and Britain, The Associated Press reported on Friday.
The rescuers and their families are expected to be resettled in Europe and Canada.
Germany’s Interior Ministry confirmed on Monday the country would give asylum to eight rescuers and 39 family members.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Sunday giving the rescue workers shelter “is a humanitarian obligation. More than 250 White Helmets have been killed in the war since 2013.”
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was quoted as saying that “the efforts of the White Helmets deserve admiration and respect.”
Germany has provided the group with 12 million euros ($14 million) in funding since 2016.
Also Monday, Israel said it fired a pair of missiles to intercept two missiles fired from Syria in Israel’s direction. It said the Syrian missiles landed inside Syrian territory just short of the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since 1967.
Hundreds of refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon, also on Monday, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.
It is the latest in a string of returns this year. President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party has put refugee returns near the top of its political agenda.
The National News Agency said 850 Syrians living around the border town of Arsal were repatriated on Monday.
Close to one million Syrians are registered with the UN’s refugee agency in Lebanon. The agency, the UNHCR, says it is not organizing returns to Syria. It says refugees should not be coerced into returning.
More than 5 million people have fled the country during its seven-year-long civil war, according to the UN


The Gulf’s war on smugglers

Updated 22 August 2019

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

  • Recent busts have included cash, cannabis and Captagon
  • Tech-savvy criminals play cat-and mouse with tech-savvy criminals

DUBAI: Bulk cash couriers, narcotics mules, counterfeit goods, wildlife trafficking —  spotting smugglers is all part of a day’s work for customs officials and law enforcement professionals in the Gulf.

Experts say that illegal trafficking in all its guises is bringing in billions each year for criminals worldwide, and the problem is increasing across the globe and the region.

In Saudi Arabia this week alone, officials arrested four passengers attempting to smuggle SR3.1 million ($830,000) in cash out of Madinah’s airport, while Saudi Arabian Border Guards intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis into the Kingdom. In a third bust, Saudi customs thwarted two attempts to bring more than 2.5 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills hidden in two vehicles into the Kingdom via a port.

Adel Hamaizia, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at the think tank Chatham House, told Arab News that money laundering,  or cash smuggling, is a major trafficking problem for the Kingdom and wider GCC.

Smuggling of cash is a major trafficking issue for the Kingdom and region, adding to the problem of capital flight.  

“One of the methods aiding capital flight in the GCC is old-school smuggling of cash as well as precious metals,” he said. 

But trafficking of drugs, fuel and even wildlife are also adding to pressures facing customs officials.

“Cross-border fuel smuggling from Saudi Arabia into its neighbors has remained an enduring feature. However, energy pricing reforms in the Kingdom in recent years have stifled smugglers’ margins if not canceled them out altogether,” said Hamaizia. “When it comes to drugs, countries of the GCC serve as consumption destinations and transit hubs, but not production spaces.”

Many countries in the region serve as transit hubs for drug smuggling as a result of geography, infrastructure, porous borders and lengthy coastlines, he said.

“Drugs smuggled into GCC states include qat, opium, cannabis, and Captagon (the family of drugs known as amphetamines). Captagon is one of the major drugs smuggled from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. 

“Wildlife smuggling such as houbara birds, pangolins, ivory, rhinoceros horns and others are also common across Gulf states. Doha serves as transit hubs for birds, mammals, ivory, and reptiles being transported between Africa and Asia.”

The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled.

Channing Mavrellis, of the think tank Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail trade-related illicit financial flows, also highlighted the growing threat smugglers pose in the GCC. “The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled,” he said.

Experts say smuggling tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The methods used depend largely on the type of good being smuggled, its quantity and the level of risk/enforcement,” said Mavrellis. “For bulk cash smuggling or drug trafficking in smaller quantities, someone may simply conceal the illicit goods on their body or in their luggage. For larger quantities, smugglers may conceal the goods in a shipment of legitimate goods.”

However, Hamaizia warned that criminals are adopting new high-tech tactics. “The smuggling of lightweight drugs is now often supported by drones,” he said.

Smugglers are also turning to social media. In a report — Social Media and Drug Smuggling — published in journals earlier this year, authors noted the trend, saying: “Social media can be used for legal or illegal purposes by many individuals. Some may use these applications for drug smuggling. For example, Saudi Arabia Directorate General of Narcotics Control has arrested eight individuals for drug smuggling through social media.”

Saudi Arabia’s Border Guards this week intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis.  (Social media photo)

According to customs law jointly adopted by GCC countries, illegal transportation of goods can carry a jail term of up to 15 years. 

Meanwhile, many criminals are attempting to take advantage of the busy transit routes in the region.

Hamaizia said: “Traffickers and smugglers often opt for busier international airports where they may benefit from sloppier screening. Smugglers also focus on connecting flights, where screening is rushed and even non-existent in some cases.”

At Dubai International Airport, one of the region’s busiest hubs, authorities caught more than 1,000 people attempting to smuggle illegal goods into the UAE last year, with officials employing a wealth of new technologies. 

These include the Ionscan 500 DT, which can detect a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives as well as common illegal drugs, and the Thermo FirstDefender, a handheld device used to identify unknown solids or liquid chemicals.

Mavrellis said the challenge at busy transit routes was to search and question travelers while keeping operations running smoothly. 

“High volumes of international trade can make detecting smuggling difficult as customs agencies must strike a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement. Basically, it is the problem of finding a needle in a haystack — but without taking too much time,” he said.