The conflict in Syria, now in its twelfth year, has divided the country into different spheres of control, while at the same time creating a war economy. In Syria, drugs have become a major source of income for the Damascus regime and its allies, as well as for the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK.
Industrial and agricultural production, which came to a standstill due to the loss of public security and migration caused by the conflict, was replaced by the arms and drug trade. Especially after the Damascus regime recaptured opposition settlements in Eastern Ghouta, northern Homs, and southern Syria in 2018, Damascus-affiliated forces and Iranian-backed militia groups, which control more and more areas in Syria, accelerated drug production activities in these areas.
As of 2020, the drug production and trafficking of the Damascus administration and Iran-backed militia groups, which became more visible, reached dimensions that led the Damascus administration to be known as a narco-state. Syria-based amphetamines and other drugs seized in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Italy, and Spain have turned into a tool of war targeting opposition areas within Syria.
Damascus and its allies have diverted the flow of amphetamines, also known as captagon, and other substances to opposition areas in northern Syria and Turkey to turn drugs into an instrument of war. For the past few years, the YPG has been cooperating with Damascus on the flow of drugs into opposition-held areas.
Successive operations by SNA
Syrian National Army Military Police sources said that the drug flow route has changed in the last few years and now most of the drugs are coming from YPG areas.
According to sources in the Military Police and Border Guard Units of the Syrian National Army, eight operations were carried out in the last forty-five days against amphetamines, Afghan paste and other drugs that were attempted to be smuggled from the YPG area into the areas controlled by the Syrian Interim Government.
Tariq Yassin from the SNA Military Police Press and Public Relations Office said that the operations against drug traffickers are concentrated east of the Euphrates and in the Euphrates Shield Operation area on the front lines with the YPG, adding that the youth in the areas under the control of the Syrian Interim Government are targeted with drugs by the Damascus administration and the YPG.
According to the Press and Public Relations Office of the Military Police, units of the Ministry of Defense of the Syrian Interim Government have seized more than one million captagon, about 80 kilograms of Afghan Paste, and various quantities and kilograms of different narcotic pills and materials during anti-drug operations over the past 45 days.
The two operations dealt a major blow to the flow of drugs from Damascus, Iranian-backed militias and the YPG to opposition areas.
Afghan paste captured in the Peace Spring Zone
Syrian National Army’s Military Police sources said that in the middle of last month, they seized a large number of drugs during an operation in the Operation Peace Spring area, east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria. The Military Police said that two YPG-affiliated smugglers were captured south of Tal Abyad with drugs they wanted to smuggle into Turkey via Tal Abyad.
“During the operation, 60 kilograms of Afghan paste were found hidden in about 300 packages in various parts of the vehicle used by the two smugglers,” the sources told Acta Fabula. The investigation conducted by the Military Police units of the Syrian National Army’s Operation Peace Spring region revealed that the drugs were brought from the areas controlled by the terrorist organization YPG,” the sources said.
SNA Military Police sources said that the YPG is producing various drugs in YPG areas in the west of the Operation Peace Spring area, in addition to providing the transit of drugs for the regime and Iranian-backed militias. This information, cited by the Military Police sources, was previously reported by open sources.
1.5 million captagon seized on the Euphrates River
Ministry of Defense of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) sources said that at the beginning of June, during the physical and technical surveillance activities of the Border Protection Regiment of Jarablus on the Euphrates River, which is the de facto border between the Syrian opposition and YPG, two people were detected trying to cross from YPG-controlled areas with drugs.
The smugglers identified during technical observation were captured by the troops of the Border Protection Regiment. Defense Ministry sources said that due to the seasonal decrease in the water level in the Euphrates River, the islets on the river become suitable for smuggling and the YPG tries to use this route from time to time.
According to ministry sources, approximately 1,5 million captagon pills intended to be smuggled from the YPG area into the liberated areas under the control of the Syrian Interim Government were seized during the operation and two people were detained. In their first statements, the smugglers said that they were promised by YPG that they would be illegally sent to Turkey in return for smuggling the drugs into the Syrian Interim Government area.
Narco-regime and YPG route
In 2019, the large quantities of drugs seized on ships belonging to companies based in Latakia, the stronghold of the Damascus administration in Syria, which reached Libya, did not attract much attention due to the conflict. Subsequently, Syria-based drug smuggling attempts in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as in Greece and Italy, have been on the agenda from time to time, but the issue of how the Damascus government has turned into a narco-state to finance the war has not yet attracted attention.
Having regained control over Syria’s borders with Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, the Damascus regime has become the sole power in controlling the trafficking. Unlike in previous years, this time, with the support of Iran, it has begun to manage a vast drug network with a revenue of billions of dollars, covering not only neighboring countries, but the entire Middle East and the Mediterranean region.
With 80% of the world’s captagon drug production, the Damascus government is the most important stakeholder in this illegal industry, which is estimated to generate revenues of $5.7 billion.
Until Italia seizure 14 tonnes of 84 million captagons in 2020, little was known about the danger posed by the Latakia-based drug and its vital importance for the Damascus regime. Initially thought to belong to ISIS, it soon became clear that it was not, due to the quantity of drugs and the route of shipment. The answer was obvious since the intelligence and military cadres of the Damascus regime monopolized smuggling in the pre-war period.
The Damascus regime, which had lost most of its sources of income due to economic sanctions and war and had a huge military burden to support, was trying to survive by taking the illegal route, which would provide it with the fastest source of income, by placing drugs on the global market.
The source of the Damascus regime’s drug flow, which made the world’s agenda with the shipment in Italy, can be traced to Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Samir Kemal al-Assad. With the coordination of the 4th Division under Maher al-Assad, who has close relations with Iran-backed Hezbollah and Tehran, drugs worth billions of dollars are produced in Latakia.
Tahir Ali Kayali, who has good relations with Mudar al-Assad, another cousin of Bashar al-Assad, is the most prominent name of the illicit trade network in the Mediterranean region. In 2018, $100 million worth of drugs were found on Kayali’s freighter Noka off the coast of Crete by Greece.
Hezbollah, which helps the Damascus regime to produce captagon drugs by controlling illegal crossings in Lebanon, the third largest producer of cannabis in the world, uses its power in the country to make endless shipments from Beirut to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
The Iranian-backed militias in Syria have established themselves in the south of the country, citing the Iraqi connection, the presence of Israel and the shrines in Damascus, while at the same time controlling the drug trade to Jordan.
Jordan’s efforts to combat drug trafficking have not been limited to strengthening customs and increasing military patrols. On 8 May, the Jordanian Air Force destroyed an Iranian-linked drug production center in southern Syria.
Captagon drug trafficking is as much a problem for Turkey as it is for Jordan. Compared to other countries, the flow of drug smuggling into Turkey remains at a lower level, but Turkey seized the largest amount of drugs attempted to be smuggled into the country with 2 tones at a port in Istanbul.
In 2022, at least 370 million captagon pills were seized worldwide and in the first half of 2023, at least 46 million pills were seized every month. And the drugs seized in several countries are thought to account for only 5 to 10% of the Damascus government’s income from the drug trade.
In the flow of drugs by the Damascus administration and its allies, the YPG stands out as an important partner for two routes: Iraq and opposition areas. Amphetamines and other types of drugs produced in the regime’s territory are transferred to Iraq through some tribes within the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), of which the YPG is a component, and units affiliated to the YPG. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has identified captagon as the drug of most concern in Iraq due to the flow of amphetamines into Iraq from the north via Yarubiyah and from the south via Deir ez-Zor and Albu Kamal neighborhoods.
Beside Iraq, the YPG provides drug transit to opposition areas controlled by the Syrian Interim Government in the east of the Euphrates River and bordering the Manbij area. While the Damascus administration and Iranian-backed militias cooperate with the terrorist organization in Western Aleppo and Tal Rifaat, the YPG organizes the transport and smuggling of drugs into opposition-held areas that are inaccessible to the regime and its allies.