Earlier this month, the Greek authorities seized what they described as “the largest shipment of the drug Captagon in the world” coming from Syria and worth more than 500 million euros.
Some 20 officers were involved in an operation to seize 5.25 tons of amphetamines in the form of 33 million Captagon pills in containers coming from Syria.
The final destination of this massive shipment of drugs is unknown.
Before 2011, Syria was a transit country for drugs coming from Lebanon and the Gulf countries, though the traffic was not particularly heavy. When the civil war broke out eight years ago, Syria itself became a top exporter of drugs, with the volumes discovered of drugs on their way to international markets being huge.
In recent years, hundreds of kg of drugs have made their way out of the country, though no one expected Syrian drug-smuggling to be as large as the shipment seized in Greece would seem to indicate.
The volume of undiscovered drugs may be hundreds of times larger than the shipments that are found, and the ordinary police cannot intervene in many cases since the drug-traffickers are members of armed cartels often responsible for maintaining stability in their areas.
Syrian Ministry of the Interior forces often cannot intervene because the power of these cartels is greater than that of the ordinary police.
All the official border crossings giving onto the Mediterranean Sea are controlled by the Syrian authorities, as are the crossings into Jordan and the Arabian Gulf. Many think that regime cronies own small ports along the Syrian coast that are used to smuggle goods out away from the reach of the authorities.
Captagon shipments to Syria primarily come from Lebanon and end up in areas under the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah’s control, while some pass through areas under the control of regime militias.
Over the past five years, Hizbullah has expanded growing hashish and manufacturing Captagon pills in areas under its control in Syria such as Western Qalamon, the Barda Valley, Qoseir near Homs and Talkalakh.
Areas along the border with Lebanon have become extensions of drug-production regions in Lebanon such as Akar and Beqaa. In recent years, the Saudi, Jordanian, Cypriot and Greek authorities have seized tens of millions of Captagon pills smuggled out of Lebanon across Syria.
In November 2018, the Jordanian authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle four million pills at the Nasseeb border crossing hidden in chocolate bars.
In December 2018, the Greek authorities discovered a freight ship in the Mediterranean flying the Syrian flag carrying more than six tons of hashish and three million Captagon pills heading to Benghazi in Libya.
At the end of last year, the Saudi authorities seized 25 million Captagon pills coming from Syria, but dozens of tons have probably been smuggled without being caught.
Drug-trafficking is a key source of funds for Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and an estimated 70 per cent of the group’s revenue comes from growing and smuggling drugs to replace funding from Iran cut due to the country’s economic crisis.
The US has arrested several cells affiliated to Hizbullah involved in the drug trade to fund operations in Syria, where the group has sent thousands of fighters to support the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.
Hizbullah members of drug cartels are being prosecuted in several countries, and most recently the US added the group to its list of trans-border organised crime groups and formed a special unit to track down its members.
There is more to the drug issue than Hizbullah, however, which is only one way in which Iran hopes to destroy Syria. Iran controls the group, and it wants to destroy Syria’s infrastructure, economy, human resources and reputation in order to receive more revenues for its militia allies across the Middle East.
In Latin America, Iran has launched an international network headquartered in Venezuela and border areas that are involved in drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations across the globe. These are thought to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profits annually.
The main purpose of forming an international network is to buy weapons and nuclear equipment for Iran, however. The head of this is Abdullah Safieddin, Hizbullah’s representative in Tehran, whom the US Treasury added to its 2018 global terrorism list.
Safieddin coordinates with Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Al-Quds Force. The network was revealed in 2007 when security agencies in Colombia listened to wiretaps on a key drug lord there and were surprised to hear a conversation with an Arabic speaker.
They eventually found the Arabic speaker was connected to Hizbullah and was partnering with drug lords to transport several tons of cocaine to the Middle East in return for weapons.
Since then, security agencies in the US, Europe and Latin America have uncovered dozens of drug-smuggling and money-laundering operations and networks linked to Hizbullah and made dozens of arrests.
Hizbullah’s international network includes many trade and financial institutions and operational hubs across the world, and these are connected to operation centres in Lebanon, Iran, the US, Venezuela and the triangular border region between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
As well as providing Iran with a constant stream of funds, Tehran uses the network to circumvent US sanctions and buy prohibited equipment.
Iran has bribed officials in Latin America and established a strong grassroots base of Lebanese and pro-Iran Muslim immigrants in the region, attracting them by building religious centres and mosques across Latin America.
The Fikr Al-Shark Foundation in the Iranian city of Qom sent more than 300 Shiite preachers who had studied Spanish and Portuguese to South America, for example. Currently, 100 South American students are studying at the Imam Ali School in Qom before eventually returning to their countries.
According to Iranian figures, there are more than 45 Iranian Islamic centres in more than 21 South American countries, most notably in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil.
It is clear that the drug bust in Greece was part of a global criminal economic and political operation and not just a passing shipment of drugs or from a small crime cartel.
Drugs are a global plague in which Iran is a major participant, and they are destroying Syria by further killing and displacing Syrians and changing the country’s demography and supporting the regime.
Thanks to Iran, Syria has now become one of the most dangerous drug-exporters in the world, and it may become even worse if Iran continues to meddle in Syria while the world does nothing to stop it from doing so.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Drugs seized from Syria