War turned Syria’s regime into a ‘narco-state’ smuggling drugs to Gulf, says expert

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Updated 02 September 2022

War turned Syria’s regime into a ‘narco-state’ smuggling drugs to Gulf, says expert

War turned Syria’s regime into a ‘narco-state’ smuggling drugs to Gulf, says expert
  • Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister said the Assad regime made $30bn from the illegal trade last year and only $800m from legitimate exports
  • This is a narco-state in the heart of the Middle East … that has enormous significance for regional stability,’ he said

CHICAGO: Although President Bashar Assad continues to survive the civil war that has gripped Syria since 2011, he controls only 60 percent of the country and his regime’s largest source of revenue is now drug trafficking, according to an expert on the nation’s geopolitical history.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, told the Ray Hanania Radio Show on Wednesday that for the past several years the Syrian regime has turned to the distribution of Captagon, a methamphetamine-based drug often referred to as “the poor man’s cocaine,” as its main source of export revenue.

He described Syria as a “narco-state” that in 2021 generated more than $30 billion from the illegal distribution of the drug, mainly in the Gulf region. This compares with only $800 million a year from legitimate exports, he added.

“As a result of the crisis in Syria, and the fact that it has sustained for so long, the Syrian regime has now become a narco-state of global significance, an issue that almost never reaches our TV screens and our newspapers,” said Lister.

“But last year, 2021, the Syrian regime, in a series of factories across the country run mostly by the (Syrian Army’s) 4th (Armored) Division, which is run by Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher, exported roughly $30 billion of methamphetamine, called Captagon, mostly around the Middle East. $30 billion.

“To put that number into perspective, the legal exports of Syria that same year were worth $800 million. So the drug industry, an illegal drug industry run by the regime, is now literally the only element of importance of the Syrian economy.

“This is a narco-state in the heart of the Middle East exporting drugs mostly to the Gulf, that has enormous significance for regional stability. The Europeans are beginning to get worried about it reaching their shores. Several ports in Africa have seized Syrian-made Captagon over the past couple of years.”

Just this week, Saudi authorities seized narcotics with a street value of up to $1 billion and arrested eight expatriates in what is believed to be the Kingdom’s largest-known smuggling attempt and biggest-ever drug bust.

Officers found 47 million amphetamine pills hidden in a shipment of flour during a raid on a warehouse in Riyadh, the Saudi Press Agency reported. The drugs have an estimated street value of between $470 million and more than $1 billion, based on figures cited in the International Addiction Review journal.

Six Syrians and two Pakistanis were arrested, Maj. Mohammed Al-Najidi, a spokesperson for the Saudi Narcotics Control, told the SPA.

Syria is effectively partitioned and controlled by several major geopolitical powers. Russia and the Syrian regime controls about 60 percent of the country, including the central spine and western regions. The US and its partners control about 30 percent of the country in north east and east. Turkey and its opposition partners occupy between 9 and 12 percent of the north and northwest of the country.

One of the biggest benefactors of the Syrian crisis is Iran, which Lister said uses areas controlled by the Syrian regime as distribution points for weapons Tehran supplies to its partner militias that target Western and Israeli forces.

“Iran is a whole different story,” he explained. “Iran is not calling all of the shots in Syria but ever since the 1979 revolution it has sought to establish this channel of influence from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean, through to Israel and Palestine. And that, unquestionably, is what they have managed to achieve.

“In Syria, that is arguably the most strategic kind of jewel in the crown for this Iranian regional strategy. And that is precisely why we see Israel conducting these quite significant series of air strikes over recent years, targeting anything from ballistic missiles, precision-guidance technology and air-defense systems that Iran has flown in, often using its state aircraft carriers, into Damascus International Airport.

“And they have sought to truck those across the border into Lebanon. Or station them in Syria, pointed directly at Israel. For Iran, it is of absolutely enormous significance and they have arguably achieved what they needed to.”

The complex international entanglements in Syria, including the Iranian and Russian presence, means there is no immediate prospect of an end to a conflict, Lister said, in which there have been dramatic flareups, such as when Daesh struck American targets and the US responded by sending in war planes.

“Syria’s crisis is a long way from over,” he explained. “There are multiple conflicts going on in the country, not just one. And all of the root causes that gave way to the uprising and crisis in 2011, all those root causes are still there today. Most of those root causes are worse today than they were in 2011.

“Over the years, Syria’s crisis deteriorated and escalated to such an extent, and also became so complicated, that various international actors have intervened in pursuit of their own interests over the years and I think, as a result, really Syria is best described now as a geopolitical conflict. There are the Turks, there are the Iranians, the Russians, of course the Syrian government, the Israelis, the global coalition against ISIS,” he added, using another term for the terrorist group Daesh.

“And within that there is a whole variety of different terrorist organizations, as well as the opposition, the Kurds, and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) that have backed and been our partners in the fight against ISIS. It has been an incredibly complicated crisis. At its core, it is a crisis and there are lots of layers to that.”

During the past two years, Israel has conducted at least 200 sets of air strikes on territory held by the Syrian regime, Lister said.

The regional divisions in the country have resulted in a de facto stalemate of violence and simmering tensions, he added. If there were not so many major geopolitical players involved, he suggested, the conflict might have been resolved long ago.

“If there was one (major) player, we would have seen Syria’s crisis resolved, one way or the other,” Lister said. “We would have seen it resolved through a victory over one side or the other, or through some kind of negotiated settlement.

“In reality, there is no player that holds all of the cards and that is precisely why, more than 11 years later, this crisis is still going on and all of those roots causes haven’t been resolved.

“Ultimately, I think the Russians have probably changed the dynamic imbalance in Syria the most of everyone. When they intervened in 2015, the regime was on the verge of collapse and implosion and the Russians unquestionably reversed that and put the regime back into a position of advantage. But they have clearly failed to ‘win’ the conflict in the years that have followed and that is why we are in this geopolitical stalemate.”

Lister appeared on The Ray Hanania Radio Show on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. It is broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit and Washington D.C. and rebroadcast in Chicago on Thursdays. You can listen to the entire radio show podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow or any major podcast provider.

You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.


Crews find survivors, many dead after Turkiye, Syria quake

Crews find survivors, many dead after Turkiye, Syria quake
Updated 11 sec ago

Crews find survivors, many dead after Turkiye, Syria quake

Crews find survivors, many dead after Turkiye, Syria quake
  • Search teams from more than two dozen countries joined more than 24,000 Turkish emergency personnel
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 13 million of the country’s 85 million people were affected

GAZIANTEP, Turkiye: Thinly-stretched rescue teams worked through the night into Wednesday, pulling more bodies from the rubble of thousands of buildings downed in Turkiye and Syria by a catastrophic earthquake that killed more than 7,700, their grim task occasionally punctuated by the joy of finding someone still alive.
Nearly two days after the magnitude 7.8 quake struck southeastern Turkiye and northern Syria, rescuers pulled a three-year-old boy, Arif Kaan, from beneath the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Kahramanmaras, a city not far from the epicenter.
With the boy’s lower body trapped under slabs of concrete and twisted rebar, emergency crews lay a blanket over his torso to protect him from below-freezing temperatures as they carefully cut the debris away from him, mindful of the possibility of triggering another collapse.
The boy’s father, Ertugrul Kisi, who himself had been rescued earlier, sobbed as his son was pulled free and loaded into an ambulance.
“For now, the name of hope in Kahramanmaras is Arif Kaan,” a Turkish television reporter proclaimed as the dramatic rescue was broadcast to the country.
A few hours later, rescuers pulled 10-year-old Betul Edis from the rubble of her home in the city of Adiyaman. Amid applause from onlookers, her grandfather kissed her and spoke softly to her as she was loaded on an ambulance.
But such stories were few more than two days after Monday’s pre-dawn earthquake, which hit a huge area and brought down thousands of buildings, with frigid temperatures and ongoing aftershocks complicating rescue efforts.
Search teams from more than two dozen countries joined more than 24,000 Turkish emergency personnel, and aid pledges poured in.
But with devastation spread multiple several cities and towns — some isolated by Syria’s ongoing conflict — voices crying from within mounds of rubble fell silent, and despair grew from those still waiting for help.
In Syria, the shaking toppled thousands of buildings and heaped more misery on a region wracked by the country’s 12-year civil war and refugee crisis.
On Monday afternoon in a northwestern Syrian town, residents found a crying newborn still connected by the umbilical cord to her deceased mother. The baby was the only member of her family to survive a building collapse in the small town of Jinderis, relatives told The Associated Press.
Turkiye is home to millions of refugees from the war. The affected area in Syria is divided between government-controlled territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, where millions rely on humanitarian aid.
As many as 23 million people could be affected in the quake-hit region, according to Adelheid Marschang, a senior emergencies officer with the World Health Organization, who called it a “crisis on top of multiple crises.”
Many survivors in Turkiye have had to sleep in cars, outside or in government shelters.
“We don’t have a tent, we don’t have a heating stove, we don’t have anything. Our children are in bad shape. We are all getting wet under the rain and our kids are out in the cold,” Aysan Kurt, 27, told the AP. “We did not die from hunger or the earthquake, but we will die freezing from the cold.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 13 million of the country’s 85 million people were affected, and he declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces. More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the debris in Turkiye, and some 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels, authorities said.
In Syria, aid efforts have been hampered by the ongoing war and the isolation of the rebel-held region along the border, which is surrounded by Russia-backed government forces. Syria itself is an international pariah under Western sanctions linked to the war.
The United Nations said it was “exploring all avenues” to get supplies to the rebel-held northwest.
Turkiye’s Vice President Fuat Oktoy said at least 5,894 people have died from the earthquake in Turkiye, with another 34,810 injured.
The death toll in government-held areas of Syria has climbed to 812, with some 1,400 injured, according to the Health Ministry. At least 1,020 people have died in the rebel-held northwest, according to volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets, with more than 2,300 injured.
The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes. Some 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkiye in 1999.


US says helping quake-hit Syria but not Assad

US says helping quake-hit Syria but not Assad
Updated 08 February 2023

US says helping quake-hit Syria but not Assad

US says helping quake-hit Syria but not Assad
  • The United States has refused normalization of relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad or any direct reconstruction aid, seeking accountability for abuses during the brutal nearly 12-year civil war

WASHINGTON: The United States said Tuesday it was working with partners to provide earthquake relief in Syria but would stand firm against working with the Damascus government.
The United States also said it expected to send further assistance to Turkiye after sending two rescue teams to the NATO ally, which suffered heavily as well in Sunday’s earthquake.
“In Syria itself we have US-funded humanitarian partners that are coordinating lifesaving assistance,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters as he met his Austrian counterpart.
“We’re committed to providing that assistance to help people in Syria recover from this disaster, just as we have been their leading humanitarian donor since the start of the war in Syria itself,” Blinken said.
“I want to emphasize here that these funds, of course, go to the Syrian people — not to the regime. That won’t change.”
The United States has refused normalization of relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad or any direct reconstruction aid, seeking accountability for abuses during the brutal nearly 12-year civil war.
Assad has wrested back most of the country and over the past year has been restoring relations with other Arab nations as well as Turkiye.
Stephen Allen, who is leading the response on the ground for the US Agency for International Development, said that most of the damage was in areas not under Assad’s control and that USAID had local partners there.
USAID is reorienting assistance that was already in place to help war-hit Syrians, instead focusing on rescue efforts and other immediate needs including providing shelter and food, Allen said.
“We’ve got the full gamut of humanitarian response going in northwest Syria right now,” Allen told reporters.
He declined to name the non-governmental groups working with the United States, citing operational security.
The United States has announced that it was sending two rescue teams to NATO ally Turkiye. Allen said the teams would arrive Wednesday morning and head to the city of Adiyaman, where search efforts have so far been limited.
The teams, coming on two C-130 transport aircraft, are bringing 158 personnel, 12 dogs and 170,000 pounds (77,100 kilograms) of specialized equipment, he said.
“What we’re focused on right now in Turkiye is getting those teams out and saving lives, to put it bluntly,” Allen said from Ankara.
“If they need further assistance when it comes to populations who may be without housing or need immediate assistance, we are certainly ready to provide that,” he said.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake has killed more than 7,100 people in the two countries, according to officials and medics.

 


Israeli court delays demolition of West Bank village again

Israeli court delays demolition of West Bank village again
Updated 08 February 2023

Israeli court delays demolition of West Bank village again

Israeli court delays demolition of West Bank village again
  • Right-wing Israeli group Regavim had taken the government to court in order to force officials to raze the village
  • Opponents to the demolition believe levelling Khan Al-Ahmar would pave the way for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the area

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday approved a new delay to the controversial demolition of a Bedouin village in the occupied West Bank.
The Khan Al-Ahmar community, which lies on a strategic highway east of Jerusalem, was slated for demolition in 2018 after a ruling that it was built without Israeli permits.
Right-wing Israeli group Regavim had taken the government to court in order to force officials to raze the village, whose 200 residents have drawn international support.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration, which took office in December, had requested more time to decide on Khan Al-Ahmar’s fate, telling the court it needed an extension before presenting a plan to demolish the village.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court granted a delay until May 1 but expressed regret that the government was “satisfied with the current situation... postponing its response every few months.”
Prior administrations have delayed their decision on Khan Al-Ahmar eight times.
Opponents to the demolition believe levelling Khan Al-Ahmar would pave the way for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the area, effectively forming a barrier between annexed east Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
Israel has been under international pressure to block the demolition, with European diplomats most recently visiting the community on January 30.
Khan Al-Ahmar is located in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control and where it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain construction permits.
The West Bank has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.


Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town

Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town
Updated 07 February 2023

Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town

Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town
  • The newborn girl’s umbilical cord was still connected to her mother, Afraa Abu Hadiya, who was dead
  • Baby was the only member of her family to survive from the building collapse Monday in the town of Jinderis

JINDERIS, Syria: Residents digging through a collapsed building in a northwest Syrian town discovered a crying infant whose mother appears to have given birth to her while buried underneath the rubble from this week’s devastating earthquake, relatives and a doctor said Tuesday.
The newborn girl’s umbilical cord was still connected to her mother, Afraa Abu Hadiya, who was dead, they said. The baby was the only member of her family to survive from the building collapse Monday in the small town of Jinderis, next to the Turkish border, Ramadan Sleiman, a relative, told The Associated Press.
Monday’s pre-dawn 7.8 magnitude earthquake, followed by multiple aftershocks, caused widespread destruction across southern Turkiye and northern Syria. Thousands have been killed, with the toll mounting as more bodies are discovered. But dramatic rescues have also occurred. Elsewhere in Jinderis, a young girl was found alive, buried in concrete under the wreckage of her home.
The newborn baby was rescued Monday afternoon, more than 10 hours after the quake struck. After rescuers dug her out, a female neighbor cut the cord, and she and others rushed with the baby to a children’s hospital in the nearby town of Afrin, where she has been kept on an incubator, said the doctor treating the baby, Dr. Hani Maarouf.
Video of the rescue circulating on social media shows the moments after the baby was removed from the rubble, as a man lifts her up, her umbilical cord still dangling, and rushes away as another man throws him a blanket to wrap her in.
The baby’s body temperature had fallen to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and she had bruises, including a large one on her back, but she is in stable condition, he said.
Abu Hadiya must have been conscious during the birth and must have died soon after, Maarouf said. He estimated the baby was born several hours before being found, given the amount her temperature had dropped. If the girl had been born just before the quake, she wouldn’t have survived so many hours in the cold, he said.
“Had the girl been left for an hour more, she would have died,” he said.
When the earthquake hit before dawn on Monday, Abu Hadiya, her husband and four children apparently tried to rush out of their apartment building, but the structure collapsed on them. Their bodies were found near the building’s entrance, said Sleiman, who arrived at the scene just after the newborn was discovered.
“She was found in front of her mother’s legs,” he said. “After the dust and rocks were removed the girl was found alive.”
Maarouf said the baby weighed 3.175 kilograms (7 pounds), an average weight for a newborn, and so was carried nearly to term. “Our only concern is the bruise on her back, and we have to see whether there is any problem with her spinal cord,” he said, saying she has been moving her legs and arms normally.
Jinderis, located in the rebel-held enclave of northwest Syria, was hard hit in the quake, with dozens of buildings that collapsed.
Abu Hadiya and her family were among the millions of Syrians who fled to the rebel-held territory from other parts of the country. They were originally from the village of Khsham in eastern Deir Ezzor province, but left in 2014 after the Daesh group captured their village, said a relative who identified himself as Saleh Al-Badran.
In 2018, the family moved to Jinderis after the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, an umbrella for several insurgent groups, captured the town from US-backed Kurdish led fighters, Sleiman said.
On Tuesday, Abu Hadiya and the girl’s father Abdullah Turki Mleihan, along with their four other children were laid to rest in a cemetery on the outskirts of Jinderis.
Back inside the town, rescue operations were still ongoing in their building hoping to find survivors.
The town saw another dramatic rescue Monday evening, when a toddler was pulled alive from the wreckage of a collapsed building. Video from the White Helmets, the emergency service in the region, shows a rescuer digging through crushed concrete amid twisted metal until the little girl, named Nour, appeared. The girl, still half buried, looks up dazedly as they tell her, “Dad is here, don’t be scared. … Talk to your dad, talk.”
A rescuer cradled her head in his hands and tenderly wiped dust from around her eyes before she was pulled out.
The quake has wreaked new devastation in the opposition-held zone, centered on the Syrian province of Idlib, which was already been battered by years of war and strained by the influx of displaced people from the country’s civil war, which began in 2011.
Monday’s earthquake killed hundreds across the area, and the toll was continually mounting with hundreds believed still lost under the rubble. The quake completely or partially toppled more than 730 buildings and damaged thousands more in the territory, according to the White Helmets, as the area’s civil defense is known.
The White Helmets have years of experience in digging victims out from buildings crushed by bombardment from Russian warplanes or Syrian government forces. An earthquake is a new disaster for them.
“They are both catastrophes — a catastrophe that has been ongoing for 12 years and the criminal has not been held accountable, and this one is a natural catastrophe,” said the deputy head of the White Helmets, Munir Mustafa.
Asked if there was a difference between rescue work in the quake and during the war, he said, “We cannot compare death with death … What we are witnessing today is death on top of death.”


Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN
Updated 07 February 2023

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN
  • "The cross-border operation has itself been impacted," Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, told reporters
  • A spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, said the Bab al-Hawa crossing itself is "actually intact"

GENEVA: The sole border crossing used to shuttle life-saving aid from Turkiye into conflict-ravaged Syria has seen its operations disrupted by the deadly earthquake that struck the two countries, the UN said Tuesday.
The 7.8-magnitude quake and its aftershocks struck Turkiye and Syria on Monday and killed more than 5,400 people.
“The cross-border operation has itself been impacted,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, told reporters in Geneva.
A spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, said the Bab Al-Hawa crossing itself is “actually intact.”
“However, the road that is leading to the crossing has been damaged, and that’s temporarily disrupted our ability to fully use it,” Dujarric said.
Disaster agencies said several thousand buildings were flattened across an area plagued by war, insurgency, refugee crises and a recent cholera outbreak.
Concerns have been running particularly high for how aid might reach all those in need in Syria, devastated by more than a decade of civil war.
Humanitarian aid in rebel-held areas usually arrives through Turkiye via a cross-border mechanism created in 2014 by a UN Security Council resolution.
But it is contested by Damascus and its ally Moscow, who see it as a violation of Syrian sovereignty.
Under pressure from Russia and China, the number of crossing points has been reduced over time from four to one.
And now areas surrounding that one border crossing have suffered significant infrastructure damage, while the aid workers on the ground have been hit by the catastrophe.
“Every effort is being done to overcome these logistical hurdles, which are created by the earthquake,” Laerke said.
“There is a window of about seven days” when survivors are generally found, Laerke said, adding that it was critical to get teams to those in immediate need as soon as possible.
“It is imperative that everybody sees it as a humanitarian crisis where lives are at stake,” he said.
“Please don’t politicize this. Let’s get the aid out to the people who so desperately need it.”
He said the UN was intent on using “any and all means to get to people, and that includes the cross-border operation and the cross-line operation from inside Syria.”
But Laerke said access by road was a challenge and pointed out that the quake had impacted the UN’s “own staff, our own contracting partners, our truck drivers that we work with, our national staff.”
“They’re looking for their families in the rubble... That has had an impact on that operation in the immediate,” he acknowledged.
At the same time, he said, partners that deliver aid in northwestern Syria said they were “operational and they are asking for supplies, and they are also asking for funding.”
For now though, the specific Syria cross-border humanitarian fund is empty, he warned.