At the inaugural meeting of the US-led “Global Coalition Against Synthetic Drugs,” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen called for the development of a regional coalition to address the industrial-scale production and distribution of Syrian narcotics.
He noted that “the main culprit in the distribution of the drug is the al-Assad regime which must be held accountable for its actions and we must impose significant sanctions on this drug-distributing regime.”
Fortunately, the State Department already has a blueprint for action: its new congressionally mandated strategy to “disrupt and dismantle” al-Assad-linked narcotics networks.
While the strategy presents clear and constructive goals, improvements must be made in defining actionable steps the administration can take to ensure that the al-Assad regime is held accountable for turning Syria into a narco-state.
The State Department’s strategy calls for synchronised action with the Department of Defense, Treasury Department, and federal law enforcement agencies along four lines of effort.
First is the provision of “diplomatic and intelligence support to law enforcement investigations,” which entails working with regional partners to facilitate information sharing, improve interdiction efforts, and dismantle trafficking networks.
Effective interagency and international cooperation should result in joint investigations, prosecutions, sanctions, and seizures. On the intelligence front, the US and its partners need to develop an information-sharing mechanism outside of INTERPOL.
“Providing ‘diplomatic and intelligence support to law enforcement investigations’ entails working with regional partners to facilitate information sharing, improve interdiction efforts, and dismantle trafficking networks.”
Now that Syria has regained its membership in the global police body, and been granted access to discussions on regional drug trafficking through INTERPOL’s “Operation Lionfish,” its internal deliberations are compromised.
On the diplomatic front, existing mechanisms such as the Negev Forum’s Regional Security Working Group could be utilised to provide higher-level multilateral support.
Second, the administration plans to use “economic sanctions and other financial tools” to squeeze the al-Assad regime and terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, linked to the Syrian narco-trade. In March, Treasury sanctioned eight targets for their roles “facilitating the production or export of captagon” — the amphetamine-like drug that brings in much of al-Assad’s illicit income.
This was a good start and can be followed by applying transnational criminal organisation and narcotics sanctions to the al-Assad regime and their affiliates. But the enforcement of Syria sanctions under the Biden administration has been lacklustre. If sanctions are to have teeth, the administration must commit to seeing them through.
“In March, Treasury sanctioned eight targets for their roles ‘facilitating the production or export of captagon’. This was a good start and can be followed by applying transnational criminal organisation and narcotics sanctions to the al-Assad regime and their affiliates.”
Additionally, the administration could consider developing two initiatives to support the economic pillar of its strategy, including creating a methodology for identifying and targeting money laundering networks and drug precursor flows associated with the al-Assad-linked captagon trade, including any convergence with other illicit networks.
The administration can also expand the use of trade transparency units — customs partnerships that identify indicators of trade-based money laundering and illicit finance — to Abraham Accord states, as well as to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Oman.
Third, Washington will provide “foreign assistance and training” to strengthen the counter-narcotics capacities of transit and destination countries.
Efforts will focus on Jordan and Lebanon, where the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau (INL), Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA), and U. Central Command (CENTCOM) are already working with local security agencies to combat narcotics trafficking.
In theory, a coordinated security programme among trusted partners is a good idea. However, partners like the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) are problematic. Despite being on Washington’s payroll, the ISF continues to advance the interests of Hezbollah.
Last year, for example, the ISF claimed to have busted 17 spy networks purportedly working for Israel. When it uncovered a breach within Hezbollah’s ranks, the ISF delivered the information directly to the terror group.
Hezbollah is also a key facilitator of the Syrian narco-trade, making the ISF’s cooperation with the group, and Washington’s partnership with the ISF, more problematic.
Likewise, if President Biden heeds an appeal from Congress and designates Syria a “major drug transit” or “illicit drug-producing country,” further normalisation with Syria will become more complicated. The latter designation will pack a stronger punch insofar as Damascus wants to dispel the belief that it’s involved in production.
The strategy’s assistance and training agenda also needs to focus on demand reduction in destination markets. The strategy mentions existing drug demand reduction programmes only once and lacks new initiatives to curb consumption in affected countries.
The final part of the administration’s strategy involves using “diplomatic engagements and public messaging” to hold the al-Assad regime accountable. This is where the administration has the most to prove, given its tepid response to the Arab League welcoming Syria back into the diplomatic fold.
As part of the normalisation process, Damascus reportedly agreed to work with its neighbours to stem the flow of narcotics across its borders. However, there is little reason to believe that Damascus is serious about cracking down.
The illicit captagon trade pumps billions into al-Assad’s coffers and multiple senior regime officials are directly involved in narco-trafficking operations.
In regime-held areas, seizure data is often manipulated while arrests are cosmetic. Washington’s counter-narcotics strategy does little to address these tactics, short of reiterating that “the al-Assad regime has not done anything to deserve normalisation.”
One cannot normalise with a narco-state, and the Biden administration must be clear that feigned counter-narcotics collaboration is not a ticket to normalisation. But so far, Washington has done the opposite: tacitly greenlighting normalisation so long as Arab governments receive something in return.
That the Biden administration delivered a strategy for countering the Syrian narco-trade is a welcome development. But absent due pressure on Damascus, the strategy is unlikely to have any real effect.
Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Matthew Zweig is Senior Director of Policy at FDD Action. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.