Imposing more levies | 4th Division receives some National Defense checkpoints at border with Lebanon
4th Division, headed by Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian President has received recently several checkpoints of the National Defense in areas of Raknous, Qarah, Aasa al-Ward in west Qalamon in the Damascus countryside at the Syrian-Lebanese borders.
Members of the 4th Division at the deployed at the checkpoints have imposed financial levy on the populations especially the farmers on pretext that they garner large revenues from the trafficking processes to and from Lebanon.
The 4th Division members imposed 50,000 Syrian lira which equals 14 US dollars on the farmers cars weekly to allow them to cross easily. According to SOHR activists, the 4th Division leaders had met with drugs merchants in the region and asked them to pay levies for passing after some leaders in the National Defense under control of the Syrian regime were easing the traders work and were even their partners in the region that is considered the main feeder of drugs in Syria at the border with Lebanon. Merchants from the rest of the Syrian regions were buying Hash substance from well-known persons with good relations with the National Defense forces formerly before those forces presence were only limited to west Qalamon in the Damascus countryside at the Syrian-Lebanese borders.
Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, the whole country has experienced significant destruction at all levels, and with the ongoing conflicts and the control of various powers, narcotics and drugs have spread widely and reached a new stage of merchandising, trafficking and manufacturing. This alarming escalation of proliferation of narcotics is attributed to several factors, including the engagement of Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in the Syria war along the Syrian regime and their control of the whole border strip between Syria and Lebanon, from Al-Qusayr in Homs countryside to the barren mountains of Qalamoun, not to mention the armed groups’ trafficking and merchandising of drugs in public, exploiting the security vacuum.
Meanwhile, narcotics cheap business started in Syria by drug dealers and “war lords”, as trafficking networks have become various and prevalent, while the security chaos in throughout Syria helped narcotics trafficking to “prosper”.
Proliferation of narcotics in the Syrian provinces
The proliferation of narcotics and drugs across Syria is mainly attributed to the prevalence of traders and dealers in light of the lack of surveillance and the escalating security chaos, as the trafficking of narcotics are carried out by several networks related to each others or by former tobacco traders who have ties with drug dealers, while the drugs are distributed secretly and transported under camouflage by public and private transportation and vehicles.
It is worth noting that narcotics are prevalent in most Syrian provinces, particularly areas under the control of the Syrian regime, especially south Syria region, including Al-Suwaidaa, Daraa, Al-Quneitra, Damascus and Rif Dimashq.
In late February, SOHR activists said that local factions raided the shops selling caravans near the municipal stadium and al-Bassel roundabout in order to arrest gangs accused of promoting drugs and hashish, where clashes with machine guns and RPGs erupted between the two sides, which left injuries on both sides. Moreover, residents of Jabal al-Arab left graffiti on the walls of Al-Suwaidaa, condemning the spread of drugs under the supervision of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Besides, other anti-regime graffiti read “The gangs of al-Suwayda + Security Services + Hezbollah = the cause of al-Suwayda’s problems. Each time Israel attacks, the regime reserves the right to respond. Hezbollah sells drugs. One kilo of drugs + Hezbollah = resistance. The south of Syria is the graveyard of Hezbollah and Iran. The most important thing is that Bashar remained in power regardless the collapse of the country.”
In light of the alarming proliferation of narcotics in Daraa province, SOHR have documented several attacks and murders of drug dealers, including the following incidents:
• On December 6, 2020, unknown gunmen opened fire on a young drug dealer in Abtaa town in middle Daraa countryside. The young man sustained serious injuries and he was taken later to hospital.
• On April 3, 2021, SOHR sources reported an IED explosion in a car belonging to the “Counter-Narcotics Department”, while the car was patrolling in the neighbourhood of Al-Kashif in Daraa city. The explosion injured three members of the patrol and caused material damage.
• On November 17, 2020, the bodies of two drug dealers were found with gunshot wounds on the outskirts of Al-Mulayha Al-Sharqiyyah town in the eastern countryside of Daraa, as they were shot by unknown gunmen.
• On August 31, 2020, a regime affiliate committed suicide in Naseeb town in Daraa countryside, near the Syria-Jordan border. The man who was a former opposition fighter and volunteered later in the regime’s military security after reconciliation with the security services, shot himself after being high on drugs.
Damascus and Rif Dimashq
The two provinces experience selling of hashish and illicit pills in public and they are available in stores and supermarkets at lower prices than in other countries, while regime authorities seem indifferent. Furthermore, the area of Al-Baramekah in the capital, Damascus, became a hotbed for the dealers of hashish and illicit pills, who could be seen standing on street corners with their hands in their pockets, waiting for boys, girls and even children and sell them drugs in public.
On April 9, 2020, the Russian military police raided a warehouse, owned by a Syrian person close to the Lebanese Hezbollah, containing drugs in Ma’raba area in western Rif Dimashq. According to SOHR sources, the Russian military police raided a warehouse with large amounts of drugs in it, brought in from Lebanon a week earlier. The raid came after many complaints by the town’s dignitaries to Russian military police over proliferation of drugs among the youth in the area. Such drugs were being marketed and sold by Syrian people loyal to the Lebanese Hezbollah.
While in February 2021, SOHR highlighted the widespread of hashish and illicit pills throughout al-Qalamoun area on the Syria border with Lebanon in Rif Dimashq due to the rising business by officials and members of the Lebanese Hezbollah with the participation of proxy local militias. According to SOHR sources, illicit pills were significantly manufactured and promoted in factories in the region, as nearly 14 factories producing these pills, and they could be distributed regionally as follows:
• Serghaya: three factories
• Rankos: two factories
• Assal al-Ward: two factories
• Al-Jebba: two factories
• Talfita: one factory
• Bakha’a: one factory
• Al-Tofail: one factory
• Madaya: one factory
• Al-Saboura: one factory
The products of these factories were sold in the region and exported to different areas across Syria, both areas under and outside regime’s control. They were also exported to other counties.
Also, on September 15, 2019, SOHR reported noticeable proliferation of narcotics and illicit pills in several schools in villages and towns of Wadi Barada in western Rif Dimashq, under the supervision of Hezbollah-backed local militiamen. One example, among many, was the high school in “Deir Muqrin” village. Meanwhile, the dealers were distributing illicit pills to young people in sports clubs almost for free, claiming that they were stimulant pills, with the aim to attract young people to be addicted to such substance.
On the other hand, the militiamen forced some middle and high schools’ students to work in trafficking and selling drugs in their schools in return for giving them their requirements of pills for. In the meantime, members of a group of the 4th Division operating in Wadi Barada used stalls in the villages of Kufair al-Zeit, Deir Muqrin, Hussainiyah, and Efreh as centers for selling illicit pills in public, as hashish and pills were brought the area from the Lebanese Beqaa Valley through Flita town in western Qalamoun, under the supervision of senior leaders of the Lebanese Hezbollah and proxy local militias in the region.
On December 1, 2018, eastern Ghouta in Rif Dimashq experienced significant proliferation of narcotics, after large amounts entered the area with the help of several regime soldiers and former opposition fighters.
In early 2020, fierce clashes, with medium weapons, flared up in the town of Felita in western Qalamoun, between armed members of the “Lebanese Hezbollah” and the “National Defence Forces” (NDF). The clashes were concentrated at the NDF checkpoint of Al-Aqabah near the barren mountains of Felita and extended to barren mountains under control of Hezbollah-backed militiamen. The clashes left seven members on both sides injured. SOHR sources reported that the fight flared up after a dispute over the profit of drug trafficking between NDF commanders and Hezbollah-backed commanders.
Meanwhile, several NDF members and commanders make profits of drug trafficking, as they distribute drugs to dealers who sell them to their customers in Al-Bokamal, Al-Mayadeen and Deir Ezzor cities. Also, these NDF members and commanders have ties with members and commanders of Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) and other civilians who smuggle narcotics in small rafts via Euphrates river at night to SDF-held areas where they are sold in shops and tobacco stalls.
It is also worth noting that regime forces confiscated narcotics shipments on several occasions. However, they never announced the source of these shipments or the identities of the smugglers.
Drug trafficking is also widely prevalent in cities and towns of Deir Ezzor province, specially among the regime soldiers and loyalists, under facilitation and supervision of commanders of regime-backed militias, as commanders of NDF, Liwaa Al-Quds and Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas provide security cover to drug dealers and allow them to transport their shipments in these militias’ vehicles in return for 50% of the profit of drug trade. In this context, nearly 10,000 pills of “captagon” entered Syria from Iraq in military vehicles of Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas militia, and the shipment reached to Al-Mayadeen city where a dealer from Al-Bokamal city, dealing with the militia, managed to sell these pills in public, disregarding the age of his customers, as even children under the age of eighteen could buy some of these pills.
Moreover, several kinds of illicit pills, like tramadol and other kinds of the Hydroxy group, are being smuggled via frontlines and some areas adjacent regime-controlled areas in a post near Saraqeb. Such pills are also smuggled by Hezbollah-backed militias which control border areas between Syria and Lebanon.
Areas under the control of Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham and opposition factions
Despite tight security measures at HTS checkpoints, hashish and illicit pills are continuously smuggled to Idlib city and northern countryside by influential commanders of the factions and some fighters, where they are sold in Al-Sa’a square in Idlib city and pharmacies in the city and countryside without medical prescriptions.
A staff member at the “Save the Spirit” centre, which specializes in the treatment of addictions and other diseases in the city of Dana, north of Idlib, told SOHR that the centre receives monthly 30 to 40 cases of addiction approximately. Most of cases suffer from addictions from rural Idlib and Aleppo, including alcoholism and drug addiction or sedative drugs that have recently replaced drugs, such as “Tramadol.”
The role of the center is to receive the addict and treat him. The patients are given certain medications to clear their bodies of the effect of drugs for up to 15 days, and then being transferred to rehabilitation centre supervised by specialists to follow up on his condition until full recovery from addiction.
A land plot used to grow hashish such as Captagon and Tramadol has been found in the city of Darkoush in western countryside of Idlib, which is sold to specific pharmacies belonging to well-known people, while a narcotic pills factory was established in the northern Aleppo countryside.
In the areas held by the “Self-Administration” in northern Syria, specifically in the city of Darbasiya, the fertile soil for growing hashish and drugs, the drug and hashish has been widespread, but has declined recently.
However, young people take all kinds of narcotic substances such as opium, heroin, Captagon, Obarval and Tramadol by 10% without oversight or accountability by the authorities in the region.
For example, drug abusers are often arrested and released by the Asaish forces without being tried or sent to rehabilitation centres, as they cannot control them in prisons and lack of rehabilitation centres. Most of the drug addicts are war-wounded and armed members in the region.
On September 27, 2020, SDF intelligence arrested a man after raiding his home in the village of Kalhi in the town of Al-Malikiya in rural al-Hasaka province for drugs and human trafficking in the region.
On March 19, 2019, the SDF raided about six houses in al-Busayrah town in Deir ez-Zor countryside, for arms and drug trafficking.
Areas held by Turkish forces and proxy factions: drugs are very widespread in Turkish-backed areas, whether in the areas of the “Peace Spring” and the “Olive Branch” or the “Euphrates Shield” areas.
On January 14, 2021, Turkish intelligence arrested the nephew of a commander in “Sultan Murad Division” in the Hawar Kilis area on the Syrian-Turkish border in northern Aleppo countryside, after seizing four kilograms of narcotics in his possession.
On April 9, 2020, clashes erupted among members of Turkish-backed factions in the city of Al-Bab in Aleppo, following a dispute over the drug trade, where armed members from a group belonging to the so-called “Al-Jabha al-Shamiya” clashed with gunmen belonging to “Ahrar al-Sham”, cutting off Al-Rai road.
The method of transporting and trading drugs via border crossings is done through Iranian militias and under the supervision of their leaders, as they transport drugs and hashish from Lebanon through the Syrian provinces to Deir ez-Zor province and is transported mainly to Iraq through illegal crossings used by these militias. The narcotics are transported by civilian vehicles under different names such as “serving Shiite pilgrims”, “local or Iraqi merchants” and trucks carrying “relief items.”
On September 25, 2020, Iraqi authorities announced the arrest of two drug traffickers west of Mosul on the border with Syria, and foiled, at the end of the same month, an infiltration attempt by three drug traffickers from areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)
Since early 2021, more than five smuggling shipments of hashish and narcotic pills were seized as they enter from Syrian territory to Jordan’s northern border with al-Sweida or Daraa. The Syrian regime does not disclose the identities of those involved in smuggling operations, and neither does Jordan.
There are different types of hashish, and are sold in kiosks and cafés, or by people with security powers. There is a new type and is widely known as Al-Shoula.
During ISIS reign in Deir ez-Zor countryside, the group fought drug traffickers, assassinated them, burned shops that traded narcotics, and managed to arrest some of them. Meanwhile, the SDF has limited trade movement and transport of goods from areas held by the Syrian regime and Iranian militias by conducting night patrols and raiding river crossings and smuggling points.
On July 9, 2020, Italian police announced the seizure of 14 tons of amphetamine in the form of 84 million Captagon pills, worth 1 billion euros found inside three containers produced by ISIS in Syria. The shipment was destined for a company based in the Swiss city of Lugano, where Italian police explained that the operation took place at the port of Salerno in southern Naples.
ISIS imported the Captagon during its control of large areas in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018, referred to as the “super soldier.” ISIS members used to take these pills which they were making them feeling super strong in battlefields.
Saudi border guards also announced that they had foiled an attempt to smuggle Captagon pills into the kingdom from Syria.
On the other hand, some raw materials are brought in to the Syrian city of Homs in order to produce drugs, while some materials are distributed to Hezbollah offices in Lebanon. For drug shipments to Europe, they usually sent to Greece, Italy, Malta or Albania and from there, they can enter and reach the whole of Europe.
Therefore, drug trafficking has become more organized and run by influential figures, behind which the Assad regime stands, as confirmed by the details of smuggling operations, by land from the border or the sea from Syrian ports through which no one can enter or trade, whether Russia-held Tartus port or the port of Latakia, in which Iran has invested in recent years.
Evidence of the involvement of the Syrian regime’s head
The finger is pointed at the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and his ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, who have long been known for dealing with drug dealers and have a long history in Captagon trade globally. The shipment that was seized in Naples set off from the Syrian port of Latakia, which is under the full control of Al-Assad.
In April 2020, authorities in Egypt discovered quantities of hashish hidden in milk cans belonging to a pro-regime figure. Dubai also has seized 5.6 million tons of Captagon, and both shipments also set off from the port of Latakia.
The Assad regime is not the only one involved in drugs trade, but also Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as security reports in several countries suggested that Lebanon’s Hezbollah is primary responsible for the drug industry, and then is shipping the drugs in different ways to neighbouring countries with Syria or European countries. They gain large amounts from such trade to finance their military operations and obtain weapons.
In the last two years, there have been many reports confirmed that the Assad regime and Hezbollah are the source of these narcotic pills. However, there was no confirmed information about the areas where drugs manufacturing and promotions were carried out. Drug industry in Syria has become highly organized and has markets not only abroad but also in all areas of control in the country.
The mechanism of the promotion and smuggling of drugs is carried out by influential figures and ordinary people from some tribes in various Syrian provinces, most notably Homs province, which was a central station for drug traffickers, in which drugs packaging was carried out in car tires, battery eggs or even in marble slabs.
The organized narcotic industry is based on a network of scattered factories located in several Syrian provinces at the Medico factory in Homs province, Al-Bassa area factory in Latakia countryside, as well as the “Solidarity Laboratory” run by the 4th Division of al-Assad’s forces.
Drug risk awareness campaigns
Civil campaigns have emerged to raise awareness of the risks of drugs and their significant harm to the individuals and society in many Syrian cities, including the “No to drugs” campaign, which comprised a team of media professionals, activists, teachers and psychological and social workers. They tried to find ways to cooperate with health and relevant institutions to put an end to this phenomenon, which has spread as a result of lack of awareness and legal accountability, coinciding with the high psychological pressures that drive some young people to addiction.
The drug trade targets civilians and the young people in particular. Drugs play a key role in the decline of cultural and moral values and led to widespread violence, crime and family disintegration, and it may lead to suicides and deaths. Drug abusers must be treated as being ill and referred to rehabilitation centres, with health care provided to them, and any measures that impede drug abusers from accessing to treatment and prevention services violate human rights. In addition, the basics of this right are the highest level of health care protected by various international conventions.
In Syria, all the parties to the conflict have violated international standards and laws relating to the drug and human rights issue and the exploitation of war for personal motives by totally disregarding the lives of civilians in Syria and causing psychological and physical harm to them.