From changing regional dynamics to the drive to end the refugee crisis, various factors contributed to Syria and President Bashar al-Assad’s decision return to the Arab fold.
But a narcotic substance is also increasingly at the center of the problem. Syria is by far the world’s largest producer of Captagonean addictive amphetamine-type stimulant pill that is smuggled into countries in the region.
Captagon was the brand name of a psychoactive drug produced in the 1960s in Germany, which was later banned worldwide.
It now fuels party scenes in the Middle East but has also, for years, provided a crucial financial lifeline to al-Assad, who has become increasingly isolated after the events leading up to the civil war. in Syria more than ten years ago.
Naturally, Al-Assad denies any organized effort by his government to profit from drugs, but observers say he has turned Syria into a narco-state, earning billions of dollars every year from a business believed to be worth many times that price. of all the operations carried out by the infamous cartels in Mexico.
It is not surprising that the Syrian president did not publicly mention drug trafficking when he he received a warm welcome Friday in the Saudi port city of Jeddah and attended the 32nd Arab League summit shortly after his country rejoined the regional bloc.
But Amman said Syria had agreed to fight against drug trafficking across its borders with Jordan and Iraq following a meeting of foreign ministers earlier this month to discuss normalizing relations with Damascus.
Days after Jordan warned it was ready to “do what it takes to counter the threat” of drug trafficking, an airstrike on Syrian soil killed Syrian drug kingpin Marai al – Ramthan. Jordan is widely believed to be behind the attackalthough he has not officially confirmed this.
According to Caroline Rose, a Captagon researcher and director of the US-based New Lines Institute, the drug trade did not trigger Saudi Arabia’s normalization efforts with Syria, but it did become an issue. high on the agenda as it represents an achievable point of convergence. collaboration.
“The Syrian regime has already made a number of cosmetic seizures to basically establish goodwill with a number of Arab governments. They want to be seen as a country that could ban Captagon if persuaded and incentivized to do so, especially with sanctions relief and economic packages,” she told Al Jazeera.
At least on the surface, Rose said she expects to see an increase in Captagon seizures and increased coverage in Syrian state-controlled media in a bid to draw attention to Damascus’ efforts to crack down on drug trafficking.
“I also think they will let go of a series of traffickers who are not very close to the regime but who are perceived or named as potential contributors,” she said, adding that she does not think the authorities will touch. some of the main alleged supporters. trade, especially those like al-Assad’s cousin, Wasim Badi al-Assad, who was sanctioned by the United States and the European Union last month.
“I also think the regime is using this as its own political card in normalization talks, essentially acknowledging the fact that it has authority over trade and using that as a primary tactic to encourage countries to pay them in return. of which they rage.
Meanwhile, since the end of April alone, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Iraq have several seizures announced consisting of tens of millions of Captagon pills made in Syria, with an estimated market value of over $1 billion.
However, they did not publicly blame the al-Assad government following the seizures, as normalization efforts accelerated.
According to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“Assad has already taken advantage of the Captagon trade. This is one of the main reasons why Jordan decided that the status quo was not working and was not sustainable. The same goes for Saudi Arabia,” he told Al Jazeera.
Landis said while many believed al-Assad had been “defeated” by civil war, sanctions, the division of the country and the denial of access to Syrian oil and gas, Captagon’s business shows he should not be ignored. and can inflict damage, allowing him to demand a higher price to curb smuggling.
“For Assad, giving up revenues from drugs, Syria’s biggest export, will require restoring the legitimate trade. He will demand the lifting of sanctions and the return of his territory,” Landis said.
The United States and the EU, however, have declared they will refuse to normalize relations with Syria in the absence of a fair electoral process pursuant to a United Nations resolution. Last week, a bipartisan group in the US House of Representatives introduced a bill to prevent normalization.
Meanwhile, in the region, Qatar and several other Arab nations remain opposed to Syria’s unconditional reintegration, but have chosen not to block its acceptance into the Arab League.
Lina Khatib, director of the SOAS Middle East Institute, sees Syria’s return to the Arab League after a 12-year hiatus as an unconditional victory for al-Assad, at least for now.
“Arab states have little influence over Assad because they have other national and regional priorities to address and divert resources from economic growth to stability in their immediate neighborhoods.
“They also cannot count on American support for Assad, because the United States has generally disengaged from the Syrian conflict,” she said.
Khatib thinks al-Assad is unlikely to drop Captagon.
“The most that Arab countries can hope for in this regard,” she said, “is that elements of the regime involved in the trade in Captagon could divert some of it to markets outside the Arab world in order to reduce the flow of drugs to Arab countries.”