Frankly Speaking: Will the Assad regime kick its drug habits?

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Updated 25 June 2023
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Frankly Speaking: Will the Assad regime kick its drug habits?

Frankly Speaking: Will the Assad regime kick its drug habits?
  • On International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, expert doubts Syria’s intention to change despite Arab League readmission
  • Caroline Rose of New Lines Institute says killing of kingpin Al-Ramthan was significant for curtailing trafficking, not production
  • Arab News documentary probes Captagon trade sources, shines light on Kingdom’s battle against drug smuggling and consumption

DUBAI: As the world marks the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, leading Captagon trade researcher Caroline Rose says she is doubtful the Bashar Assad regime would relinquish its lucrative drug business income, despite apparent support and commitments to Arab countries during the Jeddah Arab League Summit last month.

Appearing on Frankly Speaking, Arab News’ current affairs talk show, the director of New Lines Institute pointed out that not only does Captagon production in Syria provide the regime with “a large source of revenue,” but “it also upholds a very delicate system of power in patronage inside of regime-held areas that the Assad regime has relied on throughout the civil war.”

She explained that many of the “big players” deeply involved in the Captagon trade, “such as Maher Assad,” are “relatives of Bashar Assad himself, or members of Syria’s very deep and very influential security apparatus,” and “they all have a role to play in continuing and keeping up the Syrian regime’s hold on power and territorial control across the country.

Asked about the impact of the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian airstrike that killed Captagon kingpin Merhi Al-Ramthan inside Syria on May 8, Rose replied that although Al-Ramthan was an “influential trafficker and smuggler in the south (of Syria),” he was not a key actor in production, making him a “smaller fish … that the regime could give up as a show of goodwill.”

She noted that “while Al-Ramthan was given up, a number of other key individuals were not,” meaning the move was “an opportunity for the Syrian regime to … show it was genuine about cracking down on the Captagon trade.”




Speaking to Jensen, Rose pointed out that Captagon is popular among different demographics in the Gulf. (AN Photo)

The joint airstrike came a week after Syria committed to assisting in ending drug trafficking along its borders with Jordan and Iraq. The foreign ministers of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan met in Amman in early May and discussed developing a roadmap to reach a political settlement for the 12-year war.

Elaborating on the significance of Al-Ramthan’s killing, Rose pointed out that in southern Syria, which “has grown in importance in the Captagon trade,” the deceased kingpin “operated a very large network of traffickers that would be enlisted and recruited — many of them were local tribes or traffickers that had been participating in illicit trades for decades.”

She added that Al-Ramthan “was responsible for trying to export the Captagon trade out of Syria,” emphasizing that traffickers in south Syria attempted to find new routes “that could serve as a pathway to Arab Gulf destination markets.”

Rose believes Al-Ramthan’s killing has “served a message to a number of traffickers” that “if you are not in close, close coordination with the Syrian regime, then you have a target on your back.”

For this reason, she believes the world is braced for “much more creative and sophisticated ways of smuggling and Captagon production as a result,” but not necessarily comparable to the opioid epidemic, which “coincided with a huge uptick in deaths and fatality,” particularly in the US.

With Captagon, “we have not necessarily seen the fatality rate that we have seen with the opioid epidemic, so I do not want to put that on the same plane,” she said.

In 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. It was reported that from 1999 to 2019, there were more than 760,000 deaths due to overdoses, and in 2020, opioids were involved in approximately 75 percent of all overdose fatalities.

However, citing the diverse and broad Captagon smuggling capacity, Rose added that “in terms of the sophisticated and advanced smuggling techniques, I think that Captagon is definitely competitive in that aspect.”

She added: “We have seen fruit and vegetables used (and) machinery. We have seen designer bags, school desks, sometimes even drone technology used to smuggle Captagon — and this counts for not only Captagon shipments that are being sent to maritime ports, but also Captagon that is being seized along overland border crossings as well.

“These smugglers are closely monitoring the different shifts in trade, but also interdiction capacity amongst law-enforcement entities, and they are very much calculating new ways that they can traffic Captagon to reach new destination markets and carve out new transit markets in the process.”




Rose during her Frankly Speaking interview said become extremely popular primarily due to its “variety of different uses.” (AN Photo)

Last month, the Biden administration said it would release a congressional-approved strategy to curb the flow of Captagon from Syria. This has prompted the question of why it took the US almost a decade to act when Syria’s narco-trade began after the war erupted in 2011.

Rose said that the strategy to stem Syria’s Captagon trade was “originally an NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) amendment in the previous year,” and “it took two years to get it passed.”

She added that “the recognition (of) Captagon as an issue and as a crisis in the region … took quite a while. It took a while to also compound and compile evidence of the regime’s participation in the trade, and for the United States to really wake up to the fact that this was not necessarily just any illicit economy that was in the region, but it was something that had real security and geopolitical implications.

“I think also … just typical bureaucracy as well. It takes very, very long, especially in the US legislative system, to get initiatives like these passed.”

On the prevalence of Captagon in the Middle East and its expanding global reach, Rose said the drug, which is sold at relatively low prices, has become extremely popular primarily due to its “variety of different uses” — it can suppress trauma, improve productivity, and induce a euphoric feeling.

She pointed out that the drug is popular among different demographics in the Gulf, with some people using it recreationally, “but also amongst university students studying for exams to increase productivity. We have seen it across the region used by taxi drivers, by lorry drivers and truck drivers … as well as workers that are looking to work a second shift.”

“The biggest piece of information about Captagon that really should be better communicated to the public, particularly in destination markets like Saudi Arabia, is the fact that we do not know what is inside of Captagon pills anymore,” Rose said.

Elaborating on the point, she said: “It used to be ethylene in the 1960s to the 1980s … but really since the early 2000s, we have seen a variety of different Captagon formulas pop up through one of the very few chemical analyses that have been conducted.”

“And because of this lack of uniformity, producers can make Captagon whatever they want it to be, and that causes and should spark serious, serious public health concerns.”

Saudi Arabia, according to Rose, is a “lucrative” market for Captagon-trafficking networks mainly due to wealth and demographic composition, including “a considerable population of youth with a lot of cash to spend.”

A new documentary by Arab News, titled “Abu Hilalain: Inside the Kingdom’s crackdown on Captagon,” delves into Saudi Arabia’s battle against Captagon, examining the origins, methods of production, and trafficking of the drug while investigating its consumption within the country.

 

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Rocket fire reported off Yemen in Red Sea in a new suspected attack by Houthi rebels

A ship is docked at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen. (REUTERS file photo)
A ship is docked at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 56 min 23 sec ago
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Rocket fire reported off Yemen in Red Sea in a new suspected attack by Houthi rebels

A ship is docked at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen. (REUTERS file photo)
  • The attack comes as the Houthis continue a series of assaults at sea over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and as the US and its allies launch airstrikes trying to stop them

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: A rocket exploded late Tuesday night off the side of a ship traveling through the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, authorities said, the latest suspected attack to be carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The attack comes as the Houthis continue a series of assaults at sea over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and as the US and its allies launch airstrikes trying to stop them.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center, which oversees shipping in the Mideast, reported the attack happened about 110 kilometers (70 miles) off the coast of the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida. The rocket exploded several miles off the bow of the vessel, it said.
“The crew and vessel are reported to be safe and are proceeding to next port of call,” the UKMTO said.
The private security firm Ambrey reported that the vessel targeted appeared to be a Marshall Islands-flagged, Greek-owned bulk carrier in the area at the time. Another ship, a Panama-flagged, Emirati-owned chemical tanker was nearby as well, Ambrey said.
The Associated Press could not immediately identify the vessels involved.
The Houthis typically take several hours to claim their assaults and have not yet done so for the assault late Tuesday.
Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters over the Israel-Hamas war. Those vessels have included at least one with cargo for Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor, and an aid ship later bound for Houthi-controlled territory.
Despite over a month of US-led airstrikes, Houthi rebels remain capable of launching significant attacks. Last week, they severely damaged a ship in a crucial strait and downed an American drone worth tens of millions of dollars. The Houthis insist their attacks will continue until Israel stops its combat operations in the Gaza Strip, which have enraged the wider Arab world and seen the Houthis gain international recognition.

 


Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood
Updated 28 February 2024
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Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood
  • Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament

JERUSALEM: Israelis voted Tuesday in twice postponed municipal elections that could offer a gauge of the public mood nearly five months into the war against Hamas in Gaza.
Soldiers had already cast their ballots over the past week at special polling stations set up in army encampments in Gaza as fighting raged.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and closed at 10:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Tuesday, at which point turnout stood at around 49 percent, according to election authorities.
That was down from 59.5 percent in 2018.
Turnout in Jerusalem was 30.8 percent and in Tel Aviv it was 40 percent, the authorities said.
More than seven million people were eligible to vote in the elections for local councils across most of Israel, in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in Jerusalem and in parts of the annexed Golan Heights.
No major incidents were reported.
The vote, first scheduled for October 31, has been pushed back to November 2024 in towns and villages bordering the besieged Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where Hamas ally Hezbollah has fired rockets at Israel almost daily since the start of the Gaza war.
Nearly 150,000 Israelis have been displaced by hostilities in those areas.
Amit Peretz, 32, a Jerusalem city council candidate, said Jerusalem’s diverse make-up demands that “all voices are heard in the city in order to make everything work, because it’s very complex.”
Gita Koppel, an 87-year-old resident of Jerusalem, said she turned out because voting was “the only way you can have your voice heard.”
“I hope the right people come in and do the right thing for Jerusalem,” she said.
The elections were delayed after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of at least 1,160 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 29,878 people in Gaza, most of them women and minors, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Two candidates for council chief in Gaza border areas were killed in the October 7 attack: Ofir Libstein in Kfar Aza and Tamar Kedem Siman Tov, who was shot dead at her home in Nir Oz with her husband and three young children.
In Jerusalem and other major cities, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidates aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political allies were running against government critics and more moderate candidates.
Netanyahu has faced increasing public pressure over the fate of hostages still held in Gaza, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.
Tel Aviv’s mayor of 25 years, Ron Huldai, is seeking re-election in a race against former economy minister Orna Barbivai, who could become the first woman in the job.
Lawyer Amir Badran, an Arab candidate who had initially announced he would run for Tel Aviv mayor, quit the race before election day but was still vying for a city council seat.
In Jerusalem, another Arab candidate, Sondos Alhoot, was running at the head of a joint Jewish-Arab party. If elected, she would be the first Arab woman on the city council since 1967.
The elections for municipal and regional councils are largely seen as local affairs, though some races can become springboards for politicians with national ambitions.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who had a brief stint as prime minister before Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022, said Tuesday’s vote shows “there is no problem” holding elections even during the war.
In a post on social media platform X, Lapid called for a snap parliamentary election “as soon as possible” to replace Netanyahu.
Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament.
Palestinian residents make up around 40 percent of the city’s population, but many of them have boycotted past elections.
Second round run-offs will be held where necessary on March 10.


One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says

One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says
Updated 27 February 2024
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One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says

One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says
  • One in six children under 2 years of age in northern Gaza are suffering from acute malnutrition
  • WFP “is ready to swiftly expand and scale up our operations if there is a ceasefire agreement,” WFP Deputy Executive Director Carl Skau said

UNITED NATIONS: At least 576,000 people in the Gaza Strip — one quarter of the population — are one step away from famine, a senior UN aid official told the Security Council on Tuesday, warning that widespread famine could be “almost inevitable” without action.
One in six children under 2 years of age in northern Gaza are suffering from acute malnutrition and wasting and practically all the 2.3 million people in the Palestinian enclave rely on “woefully inadequate” food aid to survive, Ramesh Rajasingham, director of coordination for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the council.
The World Food Programme “is ready to swiftly expand and scale up our operations if there is a ceasefire agreement,” WFP Deputy Executive Director Carl Skau told the 15-member council.
“But in the meantime, the risk of famine is being fueled by the inability to bring critical food supplies into Gaza in sufficient quantities, and the almost impossible operating conditions faced by our staff on the ground,” he said.
The war in Gaza began when Hamas fighters attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s air and ground campaign in Gaza has since killed around 30,000 Palestinians, health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say.


US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning

US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning
Updated 27 February 2024
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US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning

US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning
  • “We do not want to see either side escalate the conflict in the north,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters
  • “The government of Israel has said publicly, and they have assured us privately, that they want to achieve a diplomatic path”

WASHINGTON: The United States called Tuesday for a focus on diplomacy to resolve tensions over Lebanon, after Israel warned it would pursue Hezbollah even if it achieves a ceasefire in Gaza.
“We do not want to see either side escalate the conflict in the north,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
“The government of Israel has said publicly, and they have assured us privately, that they want to achieve a diplomatic path,” he said.
“That’s what we’re going to continue to pursue and, ultimately, that would make military action unnecessary.”
Miller added that Israel faced a “real security threat” with thousands of people who have fled their homes near Lebanon, calling it a “legitimate issue that needs to be addressed.”
Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement which is backed by Iran, have been exchanging fire since October 7, when Palestinian militant group Hamas carried out a major attack inside Israel.
In retaliation, Israel launched a relentless military operation in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Raising fears of all-out war, Israel this week struck Hezbollah positions deep into Lebanese territory.
On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no let-up in Israeli action against Hezbollah even if ongoing diplomacy succeeds in reaching a Gaza ceasefire and the release of hostages seized on October 7.
France, with US support, has been pushing a plan in which Hezbollah and allied fighters would withdraw to around 12 kilometers (eight miles) from the border and Israel would halt attacks.


Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers
Updated 27 February 2024
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Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

AL-MEAIBDI, Iraq: Iraq enjoys tremendous oil wealth but many hard-scrabble farmers in the north say crude spills have contaminated their lands, piling on pressure as they already battle drought.

Amid the hills of Salaheddin province, puddles of the viscous black liquid pollute the otherwise fertile and green fields, rendering vast swaths of farmland barren.

“The oil has damaged all that the land can give,” said one farmer, Abdel Majid Said, 62, who owns six hectares (15 acres) in the village of Al-Meaibdi.

“Every planted seed is ruined. This land has become useless.”

Oil spills in Iraq — a country ravaged by decades of conflict, corruption and decaying infrastructure — have contaminated farmland in the northern province, especially during the winter rains.

Authorities blame the militants of the Daesh group who overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and were only defeated in Iraq three years later.

The group blew up oil pipelines and wells and also dug primitive oil storage pits, causing crude to seep into the ground, from where annual rains wash it out again.

But the local farmers also complain that the state has been too slow to clean up the mess.

In Al-Meaibdi and the nearby hills of Hamrin, authorities are struggling to find a sustainable solution to the problem, which adds to a litany of environmental challenges.

Iraq, also battered by blistering summer heat and severe drought, is ranked by the United Nations as one of the five countries most vulnerable to key impacts of climate change.

In Hamrin, layers of sludge pile up as excavators build up dirt barriers — a temporary measure to stem the flow of contaminated water onto farmland below.

The oil not only damages the soil and crops but can also pollute groundwater in the water-scarce country.

Said, the farmer, said “the soil is no longer fertile — we have not been able to cultivate it since 2016.”

Some other farmers had already abandoned their lands, he added.

He pointed to a green plot of land so far untouched by the spills and said: “Look how the crops have grown there — but not even a grain has sprouted here.”

Oil spills have contaminated 500 hectares of wheat and barley fields in Salaheddin, said Mohamed Hamad from the environment department in the province.

Hamad pointed to the reign of Daesh, which collected revenues from oil production and smuggling by building makeshift refineries and digging primitive oil storage pits.

He said the group blew up the pipelines and wells of the oil fields of Ajil and Alas, causing crude oil to flood and collect in the Hamrin hills’ natural caves.

Earlier this month, due to heavy rain, oil remnants again poured into agricultural lands, Hamad said, and “unfortunately, the leak damaged land and crops.”

Authorities have buried the group’s makeshift storage pits, Amer Al-Meheiri, the head of the oil department in Salaheddin province, told Iraq’s official news agency INA last year.

Yet during the heavy rains, the oil continues to seep out.

Iraq’s crude oil sales make up 90 percent of budget revenues as the country recovers from years of war and political upheaval, leaving it overly reliant on the sector.

The country boasts 145 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, amounting to 96 years’ worth of production at the current rate, according to the World Bank.

But for many farmers, oil has been a scourge.

Abbas Taha, an agriculture official in Salaheddin, said “oil spills have been occurring frequently since 2016.”

“Farmers suffer a great loss because they no longer benefit from the winter season to grow wheat,” he said.

Some farmers have filed complaints against the state demanding compensation, only to find themselves lost in Iraq’s labyrinthine judicial system, tossed from one court to another.

But Taha insists that authorities plan to compensate those affected in a country where agricultural lands are shrinking as farmers are abandoning unprofitable plots hit by drought.

Due to the severe water scarcity, authorities are drastically reducing farm activity to ensure sufficient drinking water for Iraq’s 43 million people.

Hamad said his department had contacted the relevant authorities to remove oil remnants that would eventually seep through the soil to contaminate groundwater and wells.

The soil also needs to be treated by removing the top layer and replacing it, he said.

“We urged the prime minister, the agriculture minister and the oil minister to compensate the farmers suffering from this environmental disaster,” said 53-year-old farmer Ahmed Shalash.