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Thursday, 22 February 2024
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Assad’s drug empire is funding Iranian-backed militias and fueling Hamas
Josh Rogin

After the Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel, several Hamas militants were reportedly found to be high on the illegal drug Captagon, which surely fueled their murderous rampage. But the drug’s threat is greater than just the boost it gives terrorists. The Captagon trade has become a key tool of influence for the Syrian regime and a massive source of income for the Iranian-backed militias now attacking U.S. troops.

The highly addictive methlike drug Captagon typically comes in small white pills exported by the millions across the Middle East and beyond. Its manufacturing is directly linked to the Syrian armed forces and the family of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In addition to being a dictator, war criminal and mass murderer, Assad can now add the title of drug kingpin to his résumé. Exporting these drugs worldwide earns him several billion dollars a year. To get Captagon, named after a former brand of fenethylline, into Europe, the Syrian regime built a distribution network that includes cooperation with Lebanese Hezbollah and the Italian mafia.


What’s worse, the Captagon scourge has Arab gulf states so rattled, they are speedily normalizing relations with Assad in hope he will cut off export to their countries. So far, Assad has used that leverage while only expanding these exports. And the middle men who transfer the drugs to gulf states are the same Iranian-backed militias that have attacked U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria dozens of times since the Israel-Gaza war began. These attacks on U.S. bases by armed drones and missiles have injured at least 56 American troops, according to the Pentagon.

“This is just a continuation of drugs fueling terror,” Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me. “Captagon is supporting terrorism financially, providing the money to expand the reach of terrorists and also fueling the terrorists themselves to go out and commit brutal atrocities like we witnessed in Israel.”

Israeli officials have repeatedly confiscated large Captagon shipments heading into Gaza. Iranian- supported militias operating in Syria and Iraq play a key role, because they control Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan. They are using the profits from reselling the drugs to purchase weapons and expand their territory. Assad’s cut helps keep him in power and insulates him from international sanctions.

A report last year by the New Lines Institute stated that the Syrian regime exploits the weaknesses in governance in several countries, especially in North Africa and Southern Europe, by partnering with all sorts of non-state actors and criminal organizations. “The trade’s role as a revenue source for state and non-state actors such as the Syrian government, Hezbollah, and state-affiliated militias has fueled malign activities that have exacerbated insecurity, encouraged corruption, and empowered authoritarian behaviors,” the report said.

 

In March, the United States and Britain issued coordinated sanctions on some Syrian and Lebanese figures at the top of the Captagon trade, including two of Assad’s cousins. Then, in June, the State Department issued a report that said Syrian regime elements were working with figures connected to Lebanese Hezbollah to produce Captagon. The State Department’s strategy to counter Captagon is limited mostly to tackling the criminal distribution network outside Syria.

There’s a lot more that can and should be done. This week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved a bipartisan bill called the Illicit Captagon Trafficking Suppression Act, which Hill co-sponsored with Florida Democrat Jared Moskowitz. The legislation would authorize expanded sanctions against anyone complicit in the international Captagon trade and specifically calls out several additional Syrian regime officials.

Hill has long been calling for more U.S. coordination with regional countries on the Captagon problem. He has raised the issue with governments in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. The Biden administration should devote more intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic resources to prevent Iran, Syria and militias from raking in billions from the illegal Captagon trade, he told me.

 

“We want to cut off that money,” Hill said. He said enacting the legislation would send “a diplomatic signal that the United States stands ready to press the Assad regime to accomplish one of the Arab states’ goals, which is to eliminate its trafficking in their region.”

The Assad regime has now morphed into more of a mafia organization than a government — and the international community should treat it like one. Unless Syria is stopped from using trafficking to finance and fuel regional violence, the plagues of both drugs and terrorism will only worsen.

BY: Josh Rogin