CAIRO: Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian minister of foreign affairs, met the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, in Cairo on Monday.
Ahmed Abu Zeid, a spokesperson for the ministry, wrote in a message posted on Twitter that there is “continuous coordination between Egypt and the UN for advancing the political solution in Syria and alleviating the suffering of the Syrian brotherly people.”
Shoukry pledged Egypt’s full support for Pedersen’s efforts to bring about peace in Syria, and they agreed to continue their consultations and coordination. The minister reiterated the importance of reviving the political process, within the framework of Egypt’s desire to resolve the Syrian crisis as quickly as possible, in accordance with international resolutions. He also briefed the UN envoy about the aid and support provided for Syria following the devastating earthquakes that hit the country and neighboring Turkiye in February.
Earlier on Monday, Arab League spokesperson Jamal Rushdi said the organization’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, held talks with Pedersen within the framework of ongoing consultations between the League and the UN, during which the latest developments in Syria were discussed.
On the specific issue of Syria’s return to the Arab League, Rushdi said it is too early to talk about that happening. He added that Aboul Gheit and Pedersen emphasized the importance of continuing efforts to break the political stalemate in the Syrian crisis.
Shoukry visited Syria in February, following the earthquakes, to convey a message of solidarity from Cairo. It was the first visit to Syria by an Egyptian foreign minister since the civil war began in 2011.
“The goal of my visit to Damascus is primarily humanitarian,” Shoukry said at the time.
The workers died after the roof of the Jebel Al-Ahmar gold mine collapsed
Many other miners still missing
Updated 31 March 2023
KHARTOUM, Sudan: At least 10 workers are dead after a gold mine collapsed in northern Sudan, state media reported overnight.
Sudan’s SUNA news said the workers died after the roof of the Jebel Al-Ahmar gold mine, near the Egyptian border, collapsed Thursday. Many other miners are still missing, it reported.
Several of the bodies, mostly of young men, have been recovered from the site and search efforts are ongoing, SUNA said. A security source cited by the state agency said workers are feared to be trapped beneath the mine’s groundwater. Few further details were given.
Collapses are common in Sudan’s gold mines, where safety standards and maintenance are poor.
In 2021, 31 people were killed after a defunct gold mine collapsed in West Kordofan province.
Sudan is a major gold producer with various mines scattered across the country.
Israel conducts air strike in Syria - Syrian state media
There was no immediate statement from Israel, which usually declines to comment on reports of strikes in Syria
Updated 31 March 2023
DAMASCUS: Israel carried out an air strike near the Syrian capital early Friday, Syrian state media reported, the second attack near Damascus in the last two days.
Reuters witnesses heard at least three big explosions over the city overnight.
Citing a military source, state media reported that Israel fired “sprays of missiles” just after midnight.
“Syrian air defenses intercepted the missiles and shot down a number of them,” the source said, saying the aggression caused some material damage. There were no details about casualties.
The source said the attack hit “a site in the Damascus countryside” but did not provide further details.
There was no immediate statement from Israel, which usually declines to comment on reports of strikes in Syria.
Israel has for years been carrying out attacks against what it has described as Iran-linked targets in Syria, where Tehran’s influence has grown since it began supporting President Bashar Assad in the civil war that began in 2011.
Iranian-backed groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Iraqi paramilitary groups have entrenched positions around the capital and in the country’s north, east and south.
There have been at least six strikes in March alone, according to a tally by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor with sources on the ground.
Two soldiers were wounded in an Israeli missile attack near Damascus on Thursday, Syrian state media reported.
US, UK sanctions highlight role of Syrian, Lebanese figures in fueling Captagon addiction crisis
Sanctions imposed on Syrian-linked figures reflect growing international alarm over Captagon trafficking
Arab News Deep Dive shed light on Saudi efforts to stop trade blamed for destroying lives, destabilizing region
Updated 31 March 2023
LONDON: Sanctions recently imposed by US and UK authorities on two cousins of President Bashar Assad and several Syrian and Lebanese figures reflect growing international alarm over their role in manufacturing and trafficking Captagon, estimated to be worth up to $57 billion to the Syrian regime.
Captagon is a highly addictive amphetamine used throughout the Middle East, with 80 percent of the world’s supply produced in Syria. Multibillion-dollar shipments of the drug routinely leave regime strongholds such as the Port of Latakia.
In a recent Deep Dive published in February, Arab News delved into the dark underbelly of the Captagon industry, speaking to recovering addicts, dealers, traffickers, health professionals, and border officials involved in clamping down on the illicit trade.
“Syrian President Bashar Assad’s family members and associates rely on the illicit drug trade to fund his regime’s violent oppression and commission of abuses against the Syrian people,” Vedant Patel, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, said on Tuesday.
“The individuals and entities being designated today have enabled the Syrian regime to continue carrying out abuses against the Syrian people by providing funds to the regime derived from trade in illicit drugs.
“Captagon trafficking by the Assad regime, Hezbollah and their affiliates poses a significant threat to stability, public health and rule of law in the region.”
Trade in the drug is a financial lifeline for the Assad regime during 12 years of civil war, sanctions and diplomatic isolation. According to UK authorities, the business is worth approximately three times the combined trade of the Mexican cocaine cartels.
The Assad regime, Lebanese militia Hezbollah, and other Iranian-backed groups in the region are all known to facilitate the Captagon industry, and in doing so fuel regional instability while creating a growing addiction crisis.
American and British authorities announced the new sanctions on March 28, targeting two of Assad’s cousins, Samer Kamal Assad and Wassem Badi Assad, over their role in the drug trade.
According to the US Treasury, Samer Kamal Assad owns a factory in the coastal city of Latakia that produced 84 million Captagon pills in 2020 alone.
“Syria has become a global leader in the production of highly addictive Captagon, much of which is trafficked through Lebanon,” Andrea Gacki, the senior Treasury official handling sanctions, said in a statement.
“With our allies, we will hold accountable those who support Bashar Assad’s regime with illicit drug revenue and other financial means that enable the regime’s continued repression of the Syrian people.”
The list includes senior regime officials facilitating the trade, to the manufacturers of the drug, and key Hezbollah associates responsible for trafficking it across the Middle East.
Others targeted in the sanctions include Nouh Zaitar, Lebanon’s most famous drug lord who is on the run from authorities, and Hassan Dekko, a Lebanese-Syrian drug kingpin with high-level connections in both countries.
Under the US Treasury action, the US will block any assets on its soil held by the alleged drug traffickers and will make transactions with them a crime. The sanctions also constitute an asset freeze and UK travel ban on the individuals concerned.
“The Assad regime is using the profits from the Captagon trade to continue their campaign of terror on the Syrian people,” Lord Tariq Ahmad, the UK minister of state for the Middle East, said in a statement.
“The UK and US will continue to hold the regime to account for brutally repressing the Syrian people and fueling instability across the Middle East.”
Recognizable by the distinctive twin half-moons logo, which gives the drug its Arabic street name, “Abu Hilalain,” “Father of the Two Crescents,” the pills are easy to make, readily available and relatively cheap to buy.
In the past six years, Saudi authorities have seized a total of 600 million Captagon pills at the country’s borders, including more in the first quarter of 2021 than in the whole of the previous two years.
Almost 120 million pills were seized in 2021, and in August 2022 alone the authorities intercepted a record single haul of 45 million pills.
One of the largest recent hauls was in October, when almost 4 million pills were discovered in a shipment of bell peppers in Riyadh, leading to the arrest of five suspects, in the capital and Jeddah.
Intercepting the drugs at the border is only half the battle against Captagon, which is also being fought by medical professionals at dedicated treatment centers across Saudi Arabia. Thankfully, addicts in Saudi Arabia have the opportunity to seize the lifeline offered by organizations such as the Kafa Society.
• $57bn Estimated value of the Captagon trade to the Bashar Assad regime.
• 80% Proportion of the world’s supply of Captagon produced in Syria.
• 5%-10% Approximate amount of Captagon intercepted by Gulf authorities.
Many young people turn to Captagon to help keep them awake during intense periods of study and exams or to hold down jobs with long or antisocial working hours.
Once addicted, some users will turn to street crime in order to feed their habit, or treat it as a gateway to harder substances. In the process, the addiction can destroy relationships, careers and academic potential, and can lead to arrest, hospitalization and even death.
Captagon has been found to cause confusion and mood swings, ranging from anxiety and extreme depression to impatience, irritability and feelings of anger or rage.
Even more worryingly, it also endows some users with an indifference to pain and fear and a dangerous sense of invincibility — qualities that have reportedly led to the drug being adopted by the foot soldiers of Daesh and other terror groups in the region.
In 1981, amid growing evidence of widespread addiction and misuse, including its use as a performance-enhancing drug in sports such as cycling and soccer, Captagon was banned by the US Food and Drug Administration.
In 1986, Captagon’s legal run finally came to an end when the World Health Organization listed fenethylline as a controlled substance under the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, to which Saudi Arabia has been a signatory since 1975.
Since then, the drug has not been produced, sold or prescribed legally anywhere in the world. But in the shadows, criminal gangs had spotted a profitable opportunity and counterfeit versions of Captagon soon began to appear in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Today, the vast majority of the tens of millions of pills flooding the Arabian Peninsula every year are manufactured in Syria with the active involvement of the Assad regime.
According to a report published in April 2022 by Washington think tank the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, war-torn Syria has become “the hub for industrial-sized production.”
It adds that “elements of the Syrian government are key drivers of the Captagon trade, with ministerial-level complicity in production and smuggling, using the trade as a means for political and economic survival amid international sanctions.”
The government “appears to use local alliance structures with other armed groups, such as Hezbollah, for technical and logistical support in Captagon production and trafficking.”
Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at New Lines, told Arab News there was no doubt that “Captagon is being produced and trafficked by an array of individuals that are very close to the Assad regime, some of them cousins and relatives of regime members.”
Most notable among them, she said, was “Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher, who has been affiliated with production and smuggling efforts in his role as commander of the Fourth Armored Division.”
This military unit has been associated with a diverse range of economic activities linked to Syria’s wartime economy, including the collection of levies from traders and smugglers at checkpoints set up at international border crossings under regime control.
On Sept. 20, 2022, the Syrian regime’s role in the drug trade was officially recognized when the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 6265, the “Countering Assad’s Proliferation Trafficking and Garnering of Narcotics (CAPTAGON) Act.”
The Act requires the US government “to develop an interagency strategy to disrupt and dismantle narcotics production and trafficking and affiliated networks linked to the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.”
Speaking on the House floor in support of the Bill, Representative French Hill said that “in addition to regularly committing war crimes against his own people, the Assad regime in Syria is now becoming a narco-state.”
Captagon, he added, “has already reached Europe and it is only a matter of time until it reaches our shores.”
The Kingdom vs Captagon
Inside Saudi Arabia's war against the drug destroying lives across the Arab world
Israel’s relations with Arab world jeopardized by new government’s actions, experts say
Participants in a discussion hosted by the Middle East Institute said the first three months of the far-right government led by Benjamin Netanyahu have been ‘chaotic’ and its policies are ‘racist’
The ruling coalition has overseen the violent suppression of Palestinian protests, with nearly 100 Palestinians killed as Israeli and settler raids have been stepped up in the West Bank
Updated 31 March 2023
CHICAGO: Israeli journalists, former diplomats and government ministers agreed on Thursday that escalating violence directed toward Palestinians under the rule of the new coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is undermining Israel’s relations with neighboring Arab countries, in particular those that have signed the Abraham Accords or might have considered doing so.
During a discussion hosted by the Middle East Institute, the panelists said the first three months of the far-right government have been “chaotic” and its policies are “racist” and “disconnected from reality.”
Since it came to power in December, the ruling coalition has overseen the violent suppression of Palestinian protests. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed as Israeli and settler raids targeting activists have been stepped up throughout the occupied West Bank.
One of the most violent incidents was an assault on the Palestinian village of Huwara on Feb. 27, which an Israeli panelist described as a “pogrom,” a word used to describe an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group. Armed settlers, who claimed to be avenging an attack on Israelis by Palestinians the day before, led a violent, late-night rampage through the village in the northern West Bank, killing one Palestinian and injuring more than 100. The Israeli military, which has responded rapidly to increased tensions related to Palestinian assaults, did nothing to intervene.
“The fact is that this government, in its first three months, is totally dysfunctional and chaotic, and almost any step it takes does not come out of initiative but out of reaction to events,” said Barak Ravid, a veteran Middle East and diplomatic correspondent for Israeli media outlets.
“This is also a government that … is the most far-right government in Israel’s history, with racist and Jewish-supremacist elements in it, in key positions that have a lot of influence over foreign relations and national security, like Itamir Ben Gvir, the minister of national security, or Mr. (Bezalel) Smotrich, the minister of finance.”
Ravid continued: “When Netanyahu came in, he said several things. Firstly, he said he is going have his hands on the wheel when it comes to national security and foreign policy. I think in the three months since this government was formed it is obvious to everybody that this is not the case. He is not running anything, everything is chaotic.
“And secondly, he put forward a pretty ambitious foreign policy agenda, first stressing he will focus on Iran and on countering its nuclear program. And second, he said he will try to broaden the Abraham Accords and get a peace treaty with Saudi Arabia. In the last three months, he has done nothing, not on the first foreign policy goal and not on the second foreign policy goal.”
Ravid said the unrelated issue of the government’s proposed reforms of Israel’s judicial system, which have sparked widespread protests across Israel and international concern, has contributed the problems because it has “hijacked the government’s agenda.”
The violence in the West Bank, the panelists agreed, has caused a spike in killings of Palestinians and Israelis, and put the brakes on any more potential normalization agreements, similar to the Abraham Accords deals with Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE, in particular dashing hopes that there might be one with Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu’s coalition “knows very well that they are harming relations with the Arab World but they don’t care,” said Nachman Shai, Israel’s former minister of diaspora affairs.
“Don’t tell me they don’t know, when they let Minister Ben Gvir on the Temple Mount (Al-Aqsa Mosque) or other statements were made by coalition members and government ministers. They know very well that they are harming relations with the Arab world but they don’t care.”
Shai described the “Huwara pogrom” as a “terrible event, a tragedy that disrupted our relationship with the United States, with the Jewish community, and with the world. And especially with our relations with the Arab World.”
He said the new government’s policies have drawn anger from the administration of US President Joe Biden, who has been a strong advocate for Israeli security and democracy.
Elie Podeh, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the biggest effect of the coalition’s actions has been to undermine any possibility of normalized relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which was “Netanyahu’s main target” for his foreign policy.
“Any tension, and certainly an intifada and anything significant that happens between Israel and the Palestinians, especially if Jerusalem is involved, is going to hamper and is going to hurt any developments between the Israelis and the Saudis,” Podeh said. “So, it is not on the horizon, at least the immediate horizon.”
Maya Sion Tzidkiyahu, director of Mitvim, the Israel-Europe Relations Program at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said the turmoil during the first 100 days of Netanyahu’s government has not only soured support for Israel among leaders of EU countries, but also the normalized relations with the UAE. She said the Netanyahu government has not recognized the damage it is causing to its efforts to improve relations with the Arab World.
The moderator of the discussion was Nimrod Goren, a senior fellow of Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute.
Turkiye’s parliament ratifies Finland’s membership in NATO
Updated 31 March 2023
ANKARA, Turkiye: Turkiye’s parliament on Thursday ratified Finland’s application to join NATO, lifting the last hurdle in the way of the Nordic country’s long-delayed accession into the Western military alliance.
All 276 lawmakers present voted in favor of Finland’s bid, days after Hungary’s parliament also endorsed Helsinki’s accession.
“This will make the whole NATO family stronger & safer,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter in welcoming Turkiye’s action.
Alarmed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Finland and Sweden abandoned their decades-long policy of nonalignment and applied to join the alliance.
Full unanimity is required to admit new members into the 30-member alliance, and Turkiye and Hungary were the last two NATO members to ratify Finland’s accession.
Sweden’s bid to join the alliance, meanwhile, has been left hanging, with both Turkiye and Hungary holding out on giving it the green light despite expressing support for NATO’s expansion.
Turkiye’s government accuses Sweden of being too lenient toward groups it deems to be terrorist organizations and security threats, including militant Kurdish groups and people associated with a 2016 coup attempt.
More recently, Turkiye was angered by a series of demonstrations in Sweden, including a protest by an anti-Islam activist who burned the Qur’an outside the Turkish Embassy.
Hungary’s government contends some Swedish politicians have made derisive statements about the condition of Hungary’s democracy and played an active role in ensuring that billions in European Union funds were frozen over alleged rule-of-law and democracy violations.
Turkish officials have said that unlike Sweden, Finland fulfilled its obligations under a memorandum signed last year under which the two countries pledged to address Turkiye’s security concerns.
“As a NATO member, we naturally had some expectations and requests regarding the security concerns of our country,” Akif Cagatay Kilic, a legislator from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s governing party, told parliament before the vote. “I would like to underline the concrete steps and their implementation by Finland, which supported and shaped the decision we are taking here.”
Kilic added: “I’m aware that there is a large number of people watching us from Finland. ... We can say to them: ‘Welcome to NATO.’”
Some opposition parties were critical of the Turkish government’s position toward the two Nordic countries.
“Unfortunately, (Erdogan’s ruling party) turned the right to veto Finland and Sweden’s membership bids into a tool for blackmail and threat. We do not approve of it,” said Hisyar Ozsoy, a legislator from the pro-Kurdish party. “We find the bargaining process (to press for) the extradition of Kurdish dissident writers, politicians and journalists ... to be ugly, wrong and unlawful.”
Asked earlier this week about Sweden’s NATO membership, Erdogan told reporters: “There are certain things we expect of them. They must be fulfilled first.”
Sweden, which made constitutional changes to pass tougher anti-terrorism laws, has expressed hope that it will be able to join before NATO’s July summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“Sweden faces more significant obstacles in its bid,” Hamish Kinnear, Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, wrote in emailed comments.
“Turkiye is unlikely to approve its acceptance into the alliance before the election in May. The Qur’an burning incident sparked popular rage in Turkiye and President Tayyip Recep Erdogan won’t want to risk angering his conservative base ahead of the polls,” Kinnear said.
The accession of Finland, which has a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) border with Russia, has geographic and political importance for NATO, said Mai’a Cross, professor of political science at Northeastern University.
“Finland is at a very important strategic location and having that kind of shift from neutrality to respond to Russia’s aggression is bolstering the demonstration of the political will of NATO,” she said.
Cross added that the delay gave Finland more of a chance to prepare.
“Finland is already sitting in the meetings with NATO. It’s already revamping its armed forces,” she said. “So when it steps into NATO formally, it can actually hit the ground running.”