Politician and top judge murdered in Houthi-held Sanaa

The war has turned the Syrian regime into a ‘narco-state’ smuggling drugs into the Gulf, expert says

CHICAGO: Although President Bashar Assad continues to survive the civil war that has raged in Syria since 2011, he controls only 60% of the country and his regime’s main source of income is now drug trafficking, according to an expert from the geopolitical history of the country.

Charles Lister, senior fellow and director of Syria and counterterrorism and counter-extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, told the Ray Hanania radio program on Wednesday that for several years the Syrian regime turned to distributing Captagon, a methamphetamine-based drug often referred to as “poor man’s cocaine”, its main source of export revenue.

He described Syria as a “narco-state” which in 2021 generated more than $30 billion from illegal drug distribution, mostly in the Gulf region. That compares to just $800 million a year from legitimate exports, he added.

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

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

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

“This is a narco-state in the heart of the Middle East that exports drugs mainly to the Gulf, which is of enormous importance for regional stability. The Europeans are beginning to worry about its arrival on their shores. Several ports in Africa have seized Syrian-made Captagon in the past two years.

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

Agents found 47 million amphetamine tablets 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, according to figures cited in the International Addiction Review.

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

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

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

“Iran is a whole different story,” he explained. “Iran is not carrying out all the blows in Syria, but since the 1979 revolution, it has sought to establish this channel of influence from Tehran to the Mediterranean, via Israel and Palestine. And that is unquestionably what they succeeded in doing.

“In Syria, this is arguably the most strategic type of crown jewel for this Iranian regional strategy. And that is precisely why we see Israel carrying out these rather large rounds of airstrikes over the past few years, targeting anything from ballistic missiles to precision guidance technology and air defense systems in which the Iran flew, often using its state aircraft carriers, to Damascus International Airport.

“And they sought to truck them across the border into Lebanon. Or station them in Syria, pointed directly at Israel. For Iran, this is of absolutely enormous importance and they have undoubtedly achieved what they need.

Complex international entanglements in Syria, including Iranian and Russian presence, mean there is no immediate prospect of an end to a conflict, Lister said, in which there have been dramatic flare-ups, such as when Daesh hit American targets and the United States responded by sending warplanes.

“The Syrian crisis is far from over,” he explained. “There are several ongoing conflicts in the country, not just one. And all of the root causes that led to the uprising and the crisis of 2011, all of those root causes are still there today. Most of these root causes are worse today than they were in 2011.

“Over the years, the Syrian crisis has deteriorated and escalated to such an extent, and also become so complicated, that various international actors have intervened in pursuit of their own interests over the years and I think that therefore Syria is really 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) who have supported and been our partners in the fight against the “Islamic State. It was an incredibly complicated crisis. At its core, it’s a crisis and there are a lot of layers to it.

Over the past two years, Israel has carried out at least 200 rounds of airstrikes on territory held by the Syrian regime, Lister said.

Regional divisions in the country have resulted in a de facto standoff of violence and simmering tensions, he added. If there weren’t so many major geopolitical players involved, he suggested, the conflict might have been resolved long ago.

“If there had been a (major) player, we would have seen the Syrian crisis resolved, one way or another,” Lister said. “We would have seen it resolved by a victory on one side or the other, or by some sort of negotiated settlement.

“In reality, no player holds all the cards and that is precisely why, more than 11 years later, this crisis continues and all of these root causes remain unresolved.

“At the end of the day, I think the Russians probably changed the dynamic imbalance in Syria the most of anyone. When they intervened in 2015, the regime was on the brink of collapse and implosion and the Russians unquestionably turned the tide and put the regime back in an advantageous position. But they clearly failed to ‘win’ the conflict in the years that followed and that is why we are in this geopolitical stalemate.

Lister appeared on The Ray Hanania Radio Show on Wednesday, August 31, 2022. It airs on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit and Washington DC and rebroadcasts in Chicago on Thursdays. You can listen to the radio show’s entire podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow or any other major podcast provider.

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

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