Assad’s drugs blackmail proves he cannot be redeemed
While there had been speculation about using the upcoming Arab League summit in Algeria to normalize relations with Syria’s Bashar Assad and rehabilitate him, this matter now seems more elusive than ever. Though Assad lost his legitimacy when he slaughtered his people, he now poses a direct health threat to the Gulf and the wider international community as Syria turns into a narco-state and Assad uses drugs as a bargaining chip.
Initially, Assad used refugees as a bargaining chip. He wanted them to overwhelm the international community so that he could bring it to its knees and foreign leaders would accept his conditions without him having to make any concessions. However, he cannot play this card anymore, as the Europeans have somehow absorbed the waves of refugees, the violence in Syria has largely stopped and the international community is talking about early recovery without having to normalize with the regime.
Now that the refugee card is lost, Assad needs a new point of pressure. In the first eight months of this year, 250 million Captagon pills of Syrian provenance were confiscated worldwide. Syria is thought to have exported pills worth $17.5 billion in 2020, or 22 times the nation’s total exports. The main destination for the lethal Captagon pills is Saudi Arabia. Every now and then, the Kingdom’s authorities find drugs hidden inside shipments of fruit. Also, in an attempt to evade suspicion, Assad sends the fruits via Lebanon.
In an interview with Le Figaro, a regime-linked Syrian businessman hinted that Assad would stop sending Captagon to the world if the international community rehabilitated him without him having to change his behavior. The businessman gave the excuse that the regime needs to find ways “to live” while sanctions are imposed.
However, various attempts to rehabilitate Assad have failed. Jordan tried to help Assad. When King Abdullah visited US President Joe Biden last year, he took with him the Assad dossier. However, Assad returned the favor by sending weapons and drugs to Jordan. There were also talks held about Amman reviving the opposition groups in Deraa, southwestern Syria, in order to create a buffer between Assad’s thugs and the Jordanian border.
However, the attitude of Assad toward Jordan shows that a step-by-step approach does not work. Assad will always blackmail the international community to get what he wants without making any concessions. This actually makes sense because any concession Assad does make will be the end of his regime.
Assad is a survivor. He will do whatever it takes to survive. When aid goes through Damascus, he makes sure he takes a large cut to bolster his regime. Now that sanctions have cut him off from the global economy, he has turned to the black economy to finance his regime. Drugs serve two purposes. They are both a medium to finance the regime and a way to blackmail the international community.
However, drugs are a red line for the international community. While Assad slaughtering his own people in Syria was an issue, when he is causing health problems in Gulf countries and in Europe, this is a totally different ball game. Europe will not cave in to Assad; on the contrary, it has now confirmed that the Syrian president cannot be trusted and any concessions made to him will only produce more belligerent behavior and more blackmail.
The drugs are a reality check for Europe, the Gulf and the world, including those who go by the logic of ‘better the devil you know’.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Everyone in Europe is concerned about drugs and it is unlikely they will empower a regime that they deem so malicious. But the drugs are a reality check for Europe, the Gulf and the world, including those who go by the logic of “better the devil you know.” There is no way forward with Assad. He will not change his behavior and will continue blackmailing the international community, even if funds are directed to him.
Former US President Jimmy Carter, who favors normalization with Assad as a way to stop the conflict, once described the process as an “ugly peace.” However, there will be no peace of any kind with Assad. He does not understand that his methods do not work with the international community and that, unless he shows some goodwill, no one will lend him a hand.
The overtures of Jordan to his regime were a golden opportunity for him to show some goodwill that could have created an incentive for other Arab countries to start the normalization process. However, instead of showing appreciation to the king of Jordan, Assad’s reckless and unethical behavior only embarrassed King Abdullah. What kind of sign does that send to those who have thought of normalizing with him?
Assad does not realize that he is living on borrowed time. He has been very skillful at playing on the differences between his allies and even among his foes. He knew how to strike a balance between the Russians and the Iranians. He presented himself as a deterrent against Turkey at the height of Ankara’s tensions with the UAE. This was one incentive for Abu Dhabi to normalize with the Syrian regime and extend help to it. However, his behavior cannot be sustained. And the Captagon episode is proof that Assad cannot be redeemed.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II.