Conflict, corruption turning Lebanon, Syria into narco-states: Report

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Updated 18 January 2022

Conflict, corruption turning Lebanon, Syria into narco-states: Report

Conflict, corruption turning Lebanon, Syria into narco-states: Report
  • Both countries exporting massive quantities of drug Captagon to prop up ailing economies
  • Expert: ‘All countries which are under Iranian occupation are technically narco-states’

LONDON: The large-scale export of Captagon from Syria and Lebanon is the legacy of a decade of conflict combined with widespread corruption, and reliance on the drug revenues is turning both countries into narco-states, according to a new report by Britain’s Channel 4 News.

In Lebanon, militias and gangs operating in Hezbollah-controlled areas such as the Bekaa Valley are producing up to 600,000 Captagon pills per week — worth around $3 million if sold in the Gulf.

Captagon, a brand name for the amphetamine-type stimulant fenethylline, is a cheap, readily produced drug previously used by Daesh fighters to battle without fear.

An anonymous producer of the drug told Channel 4 News: “Poverty and need forced me to trade in Captagon.”

Lebanon has been grappling with an economic collapse that has driven many of its people out of the country or into illicit activities.

The corruption of the Lebanese state, of which Iran-backed Hezbollah is a major constituent, eases the process for manufacturing and exporting drugs.

“Crime exists alongside corruption in this country. If there was no corruption, there would be no crime,” said the Captagon producer.

The Assad regime in Syria, which is dealing with its own currency crisis and economic collapse, is also becoming a narco-state, said Makram Rabah, a history lecturer at the American University of Beirut.

“At the moment both Lebanon and Syria, and all countries which are under Iranian occupation, are technically narco-states — and we’re being dealt with accordingly,” Rabah told Channel 4.

“This is, unfortunately, a reality which the Lebanese up until now haven’t yet admitted, and it’s something that will prevent us recovering from the ongoing economic collapse.”

For the Assad regime, the trade of drugs is now a lifeline for an economy ravaged by a decade of civil war and crippling international sanctions.

In 2020, legal exports from the country were worth just a fifth of the value of Captagon seized from Syrian drug traders.

According to a report by the Cyprus-based Center for Operational Analysis and Research, “Captagon exports from Syria reached a market value of at least $3.46 billion” in that year.

Some of those Syrian drug dealers are known to operate out of the port of Latakia, a stronghold of the regime and under the direct control of President Bashar Assad’s brother, who commands some of the country’s most elite and loyal fighting units.

Rabah said the export of Captagon is not only keeping the Syrian economy from total collapse, but is also being used to seek revenge on Gulf countries that opposed the regime’s violent crackdown on protesters and the war that ensued.

“This drug, particularly recently with the start of the Syrian civil war, has become a weapon, a tool that the Syrian regime, as well as the Iranian regime, uses against both Lebanon and the Gulf,” he added. Captagon “has become synonymous with Hezbollah and also the Assad regime,” he said.

The trade of the drug also presents a problem for Lebanon’s border officials, whose responsibility it is to prevent their export, which is pushed by other factions within the state, namely Hezbollah.

Col. Joseph Musalim of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces said: “The manufacture and smuggling of Captagon didn’t exist in Lebanon before the Syrian crisis. It came after the crisis, and showed traders and manufacturers that it’s a profitable trade.”

Gulf countries have responded to the deluge of Captagon coming out of Lebanon and Syria by tightening customs restrictions of goods often used by drug smugglers.

In April last year, Saudi Arabia announced the suspension of fruit and vegetable imports from Lebanon after the seizure of more than 5 million Captagon pills hidden in fruit.


Hamas-backed bloc wins West Bank student elections

Hamas-backed bloc wins West Bank student elections
Updated 22 sec ago

Hamas-backed bloc wins West Bank student elections

Hamas-backed bloc wins West Bank student elections
  • The Hamas-backed bloc with 5,060 votes won 28 seats, while the Fatah-supported bloc with 3,379 votes bagged just 18 seats

RAMALLAH: The Islamic bloc affiliated with Hamas won the student council elections at Birzeit University in the West Bank on Wednesday, defeating their Fatah rivals in the tightly contested vote.

The Hamas-backed bloc with 5,060 votes won 28 seats, while the Fatah-supported bloc with 3,379 votes bagged just 18 seats.

Five blocs contested 51 seats, while the voter turnout was 78.1 percent. 

Students witnessed an intense debate between representatives of the rival blocs the previous day, with both parties’ policies and programs coming in for criticism.

The Islamic bloc has led the student council in recent years.

Their Fatah-backed rivals say they are paying the price for the mistakes of the Palestinian Authority in terms of corruption, nepotism and security coordination with Israel, and losing elections frequently.

A day before the vote, seven senior student members of the Islamic bloc were arrested by an Israeli undercover unit, which generated sympathy for the group and translated into votes, experts told Arab News.

Ghassan Al-Khatib, vice president of the university, said that the student council vote is an indicator of Palestinian public opinion and political balances in Palestinian society “because of the credibility, integrity and democracy at the Birzeit elections.”

Mohammed Daraghmeh, a senior Palestinian writer, told Arab News that Birzeit students are not influenced by employment interests or work, so the electoral process takes place “in a democratic atmosphere and with great integrity.”

He added: “If Hamas wins, the street is supportive and biased toward it. If Fatah wins, this means that the street is with it.”

Daraghmeh said that both Fatah and Hamas make great efforts to win the students’ backing.

The election “helps Hamas strengthen its political discourse, and show that Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank supports its path and political line,” he said.

Meanwhile, Fatah “wants to defend the legitimacy of the Palestinian political system in light of its inability to organize Palestinian general elections.”

Birzeit elections are held every two years, with about 15,000 students voting for 51 seats. There was no vote in 2021 owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

The secretariat of the administrative body of the council consists of 13 members.

Birzeit was established in 1973 as a public university, and is the only West Bank academic institution that allows Hamas to practice its activities and politics without interference from Israel or the PA.

A number of prominent Palestinian leaders have graduated from the university, which offers 36 bachelor’s degree programs and 13 master’s programs, and employs 500 teachers.

Students from the West Bank and a few hundred Palestinians living in Israel study there.

Basem Naim, a prominent Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, told Arab News that the political group views the student vote as “an essential indicator” because it highlights the direction of future generations.

“The Birzeit University elections constitute an essential platform for Hamas because most Palestinian leaders are university graduates. Therefore, their strength today indicates the type of future leaders of the Palestinian people in all sectors and fields,” he said.


Hezbollah chief Nasrallah acknowledges loss of Lebanon parliamentary majority

Hezbollah chief Nasrallah acknowledges loss of Lebanon parliamentary majority
Updated 2 min 41 sec ago

Hezbollah chief Nasrallah acknowledges loss of Lebanon parliamentary majority

Hezbollah chief Nasrallah acknowledges loss of Lebanon parliamentary majority
  • "Unlike the situation in parliament in 2018, no political group can claim a majority," Nasrallah said
  • The elections saw gains by the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party and more than a dozen reform-minded newcomers, as well as a smattering of independents

BEIRUT: The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged his party and its allies had lost their parliamentary majority in elections but said no single group had taken it, in his first televised speech since Sunday’s elections.
“Unlike the situation in parliament in 2018, no political group can claim a majority,” he said.
Hezbollah and its allies scored 62 seats during Sunday polls, according to a Reuters tally, losing a majority they secured in 2018, when they and their allies won 71 seats.
Hezbollah and its ally Amal held on to all of parliament’s Shiite seats. But some of its oldest allies, including Sunni, Druze and Christian politicians, lost theirs.
The elections saw gains by the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party and more than a dozen reform-minded newcomers, as well as a smattering of independents.
The results mark a blow for Hezbollah, though Nasrallah declared the results “a very big victory.”
Nasrallah called for “cooperation” between political groups including newcomers, saying the alternative would be “chaos and vacuum.”
The results have left parliament split into several camps, none of which have a majority, raising the prospect of political paralysis and tensions that could delay badly needed reforms to steer Lebanon out of its economic collapse.


Egypt hands down death sentence for priest’s murder

Egypt hands down death sentence for priest’s murder
Updated 53 min 11 sec ago

Egypt hands down death sentence for priest’s murder

Egypt hands down death sentence for priest’s murder
  • The defendant was found guilty of voluntary homicide
  • A court-ordered psychological assessment found him "responsible for his actions"

CAIRO: An Egyptian court on Wednesday sentenced to death a man accused of the murder last month of a Coptic priest in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, judicial sources said.
The Alexandria court’s ruling is subject to approval by the mufti of the republic.
The sources said the defendant was found guilty of voluntary homicide after a court-ordered psychological assessment found him “responsible for his actions.”
Father Arsanios Wadid died of his wounds in hospital after being stabbed on April 7 on Alexandria’s seafront promenade as he accompanied a group of young parishioners.
The assailant was grabbed by passers-by and handed over to police, who detained him in a psychiatric hospital because of doubts over his mental health.
Coptic Christians, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, make up roughly 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population of more than 100 million.
The community has long complained of discrimination and underrepresentation.
In February, however, Egypt for the first time swore in a Coptic judge to head its constitutional court.
Copts were targeted in a series of sectarian attacks after the military in 2013 deposed Islamist president Muhammad Mursi. Such attacks focused largely on remote villages in southern Egypt.


Lebanon reformists weigh choices after election surge

Lebanon reformists weigh choices after election surge
Updated 18 May 2022

Lebanon reformists weigh choices after election surge

Lebanon reformists weigh choices after election surge
  • Analysts have added up MPs to figure out the size of the parliamentary blocs, which are divided between sovereign blocs and pro-Hezbollah groupings

BEIRUT: Newly elected reformist MPs in Lebanon are planning strategies following election breakthroughs that grant them significant sway in the parliamentary balance of power.

Thirteen reformist MPs in Lebanon who entered the legislative race on the values of the 2019 anti-establishment uprising, as well as 21 independent MPs, have entered the newly elected Lebanese Parliament.

Analysts have added up MPs to figure out the size of the parliamentary blocs, which are divided between sovereign blocs and pro-Hezbollah groupings.

Figures show that elected MPs may be positioned within 13 blocs divided into two opposite larger camps, forming the 128-MP Parliament.

The sovereign MPs can be classified based on their previous positions. A total of 68 MPs are opposed to Hezbollah. They include members from the Lebanese Forces Party, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Islamic Group and the Lebanese Phalanges Party, as well as independents and reformists.

Meanwhile, the pro-Hezbollah camp includes the party itself, the Amal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Marada Movement, the Tashnaq Party and Al-Ahbash, for a total of about 60 MPs.

There is much speculation about how the new independent MPs will deal with upcoming events, and how they will position themselves on the parliamentary map.

A political observer told Arab News: “We will see the true colors of every MP when topics related to core issues are discussed.”

The observer added: “Will these MPs change their stance regarding Hezbollah’s illegal weapons, although some have avoided addressing this sensitive issue in the past? Will these MPs be able to form a unified bloc that can influence decisions within Parliament, or will they remain independent, each working alone?”

Suleiman Franjieh, head of the Marada Movement and a candidate for the Presidency, appealed to reformist MPs, saying: “Do not place strict conditions on yourselves so that you do not become isolated, because theory is one thing, and practice is another.”

Fouad Siniora, former Lebanon PM, who backed a list in Beirut and whose candidates all failed to reach parliament, said: “Sovereign MPs must develop a correct vision for the future on how to confront Hezbollah’s domination and control in order to restore the Lebanese state.”

He added: “In 2008, the sovereign forces had won 72 seats in parliament, but Hezbollah at that time refused to form a majority government.”

Siniora warned against backing down as the March 14 forces did in 2009, which cost them their power.

A video shared on social media shocked voters in Tripoli and around the country. The elected MP Firas Salloum, who was on the Real Change list with the Islamic Group, was filmed celebrating his victory by dancing to a song supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The video prompted the Islamic Group to issue a statement renouncing Salloum. It said: “He does not represent us as he seemed proud of his affiliation to the criminal tyrant, who blew up the Al-Taqwa and Al-Salam Mosques in Tripoli, and killed our people in Syria.”

The statement demanded that Salloum resign “because he does not represent the city and does not resemble its people.”

Reformist MP Elias Jarada said: “Taking the revolution from the street to the Parliament necessitates adopting a policy of reaching out to all for dialogue so that the 17 October revolution becomes a model for dynamic political action. It is important to be realistic because parliament includes groups that represent other categories of the Lebanese people.”

Several reformist MPs rushed to convene with their groups to determine their next steps in Parliament.

Elected reformist MP Ibrahim Mneimneh, whose list won three parliamentary seats in Beirut’s second constituency, said: “The reformist MPs will be the revolutionary voice in parliament. We will not compromise with the criminal regime that destroyed our lives, and we will not compromise in the face of intimidation with weapons, nor over the sale of state assets, the money of depositors, or the path of justice with the Beirut port blast and the explosion in Akkar.”

Leaked news suggested that reformist MP Melhem Khalaf, former head of the Beirut Bar Association who took part in protests against state corruption and helped release detained protesters, could possibly be elected deputy parliament speaker, succeeding Elie Ferzli, who has held the position since 2000, but failed to reach Parliament in the recent elections.

Meanwhile, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is seeking a new term, is reportedly making efforts to win over civil society, and supports having Khalaf as his deputy.

Major challenges await the newly elected house, the first of which is electing a speaker and a deputy speaker, followed by parliamentary consultations to assign someone to form a new government, then electing a new president in September or October after Michel Aoun’s term ends.

There are also significant legislative obligations, within the framework of reforms required by the international community to extricate Lebanon from its worsening economic crisis.


Pope Francis sends condolences to UAE for Sheikh Khalifa

Pope Francis sends condolences to UAE for Sheikh Khalifa
Updated 18 May 2022

Pope Francis sends condolences to UAE for Sheikh Khalifa

Pope Francis sends condolences to UAE for Sheikh Khalifa
  • Pontiff joins the people of the Emirates in ‘mourning his passing and paying tribute to his distinguished and far-sighted leadership’
  • Head of the Catholic church praises the late leader for promoting religious understanding as contained in the historic Abu Dhabi Document and Zayed Award for Human Fraternity

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis has said that he is “saddened” by the death of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, former president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi.

In a message, the leader of the Catholic church sent his condolences to newly appointed UAE president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and to the country’s people, invoking “an abundance of divine blessings.”

The Pope expressed his “heartfelt condolences and the assurance of my prayers for his eternal rest.”

“I likewise join the people of the Emirates in mourning his passing and paying tribute to his distinguished and far-sighted leadership in the service of the nation.”

The Catholic leader said he was “particularly grateful for the solicitude shown by His Highness to the Holy See and to the Catholic communities of the Emirates, and for his commitment to the values of dialogue, understanding and solidarity between peoples and religious traditions solemnly proclaimed by the historic Abu Dhabi Document and embodied in the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity.”

“May his legacy continue to inspire the efforts of men and women of good will everywhere to persevere in weaving bonds of unity and peace between the members of our one human family,” he added.

Francis also offered prayers for Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed as he takes up the responsibilities of the UAE presidency.

“Upon you, the members of your family, and upon all the beloved people of the United Arab Emirates, I cordially invoke an abundance of divine blessings.”

Friar Giuseppe Ciutti, an Italian priest who spent time in Iraq, told Arab News that this message from the Pope was “a clear sign of the personal (and) great respect he felt for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.”

“Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi in 2019; that was the first visit of a Roman Catholic Church (leader) to the Arab Peninsula. During that trip the Pope … promoted values of fraternity, peace, and peaceful coexistence.”

On that visit, Francis paid tribute to the UAE as “a land that is trying to be a model of coexistence, of human brotherhood, and a meeting place among diverse civilizations and cultures.”

“Pope Francis always refers to that trip every time he talks about the progress in interreligious dialogue. His message can be read as a new sign of friendship by the Catholic (church) towards the Arab world,” he said.

The UAE is home to nearly a million Roman Catholics, most of them from the Philippines and India.