A little white pill, Captagon, gives Syria’s Assad a powerful tool to win over Arab states

BEIRUT (AP) β€” A little white pill has given Syrian President Bashar Assad powerful leverage with his Arab neighbors, who have wanted him out of pariah status in hopes he will stop the flow of the highly addictions outside of Syria.

Western governments have been frustrated with the red carpet treatment Arab countries have given Assad, fearing their reconciliation could undermine efforts to end Syria’s long-running civil war.

But for the Arab states, stopping the Captagon trade is a top priority. Hundreds of millions of pills have been smuggled over the years into Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries, where the drug is used recreationally and by people with physical jobs. demanding to keep them alert.

Saudi Arabia has intercepted large shipments of pills hidden in crates of plastic fake oranges and hollowed out pomegranates – even pills crushed and molded to look like traditional clay bowls.

Analysts say Assad is likely hoping that by making even limited gestures against drugs he can earn money for reconstruction, greater integration in the region and even push for an end to Western sanctions.

The vast majority of global Captagon is produced in Syria, with smaller production in neighboring Lebanon. Western governments estimate that the illegal pill trade generates billions of dollars.

The United States, Britain and the European Union accuse Assad, his family and his allies, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, of facilitating and profiting from the trade. It has given the Assad regime a massive financial lifeline at a time when Syria’s economy is collapsing, they say. The Syrian government and Hezbollah deny the charges.

Syria’s neighbors have been the largest and most lucrative market for the drug. As the industry flourished, experts say Damascus in recent years saw Captagon as more than just a cash cow.

“The Assad regime realized it was something they could weaponize for political purposes…and that’s when the production started to be on a large scale,” said Karam Shaar , senior researcher at the Washington-based New Lines Institute.

Halting trade has been one of the main demands of Arab countries in their talks with Syria on ending its political isolation. Syria was readmitted last month from the Arab League, from which it was suspended in 2011 due to Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters. On May 20, Assad received a warm welcome at the Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

A possible sign of behind-the-scenes compromises came on May 8, when airstrikes in southern Syria reduced the home of a well-known drug lord to rubble. Merhi al-Ramthan, his wife and six children were killed. Another strike destroyed a suspected Captagon factory outside the town of Daraa, near the Jordanian border.

Jordan was likely behind the strike, with Assad’s consent, activists and experts say. The strike came a day after the Arab League formally readmitted Syria, a step Jordan helped broker.

“Assad gave assurances that he would prevent the regime from supporting and protecting smuggling networks,” former Jordanian intelligence brigadier general Saud Al-Sharafat told The Associated Press. “For example, he facilitated the elimination of al-Ramthan.”

Jordan, he said, views the Captagon trade as “a threat to both security and community peace.”

In public comments, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi declined to confirm or deny whether his country was behind the airstrikes, but said he was ready to take military action to combat trafficking. drug.

Arab states, many of whom had backed rebels trying to oust Assad, say they share the goal of pushing him to make peace. Ahead of the Jeddah summit, Jordan hosted a meeting of senior diplomats from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt, and the lengthy agenda included setting a roadmap for the talks of peace and the return of millions of Syrian refugees.

But it is on Captagon that the gathering has progressed the most. Syria has pledged to crack down on smuggling and a regional security coordination committee has been set up. Days later, Syrian state media reported that police called off a Captagon smuggling operation in the city of Aleppo, discovering 1 million pills hidden in a van.

Jordan has stepped up surveillance along the Syrian border in recent years and raided drug smugglers. Jordanian troops killed 27 suspected smugglers in a violent shootout in January.

Smuggling routes have made it more difficult to unravel drug rings. A member of an Iraqi militia told the AP that militias from Iraq’s desert province of Anbar, which borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, were crucial in smuggling Captagon. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Syrian lawmaker Abboud al-Shawakh denied that the government profits from the drug trade and insisted that authorities were trying vigorously to crack down on smuggling.

“Our country is used as a regional transit route as there are border crossings outside of state control,” al-Shawkah told the AP. He alleged that only armed opposition groups are involved in trafficking Captagon.

Many observers believe that Syrian opposition groups are involved in drug trafficking. Western governments, however, accuse Assad’s relatives and allies of a direct role in the production and trade of Captagon and have imposed sanctions on a range of individuals close to Assad.

Although Assad is prepared to act against parts of the drug trade, he has little incentive to crush it completely without gaining something in return from Arab states, al-Sharafat said.

A Saudi official has denied reports that Riyadh offered billions of dollars to Damascus in return for a crackdown. But he added that anything the kingdom could offer Syria would cost less than the damage Captagon has done to Saudi youth. He spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with the regulations.

The United States and other Western governments fear that Arab states’ normalization with Syria will undermine attempts to pressure Assad into making concessions to end the Syrian conflict. They want Assad to follow a roadmap for peace outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, passed unanimously in 2015, which calls for talks with the opposition, the rewriting of the constitution and UN-monitored elections.

So far, the resolution has come to nothing. Since his passage, Assad has regained control of territory previously lost, confining the opposition to a small corner of the northwest. His grip on power now appears secure, although much of the north and east remains out of his hands, held by US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Shaar said Assad could use the Captagon card to try to overturn the UN resolution.

Other concessions, such as the lifting of sanctions imposed by the West, would be more difficult for him to obtain. While Gulf Arab states won’t be able to inject money directly into Assad’s government with the sanctions in place, Shaar said they could funnel money through directed projects. by the UN in government-controlled Syria to get action from Assad against Captagon.

β€œHe will play politics with the Gulf states,” Shaar said.


Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, contributed to this report.

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