CAIRO -- Arab states that are thinking about re-establishing ties with the regime of Bashar al-Assad should bear in mind that the Syrian president's inner circle is deeply embroiled in the illicit Captagon trade, analysts said.
Before agreeing to any restoration of ties, they should consider -- along with the atrocities al-Assad has perpetrated against his own people -- the full extent of the harm the regime-sponsored drug trade has done to the region, they said.
The Captagon trade is the lifeblood of the Syrian regime, which enables, facilitates and reaps enormous profits from manufacturing and trafficking the dangerous amphetamine throughout the region.
"Syria has become a global leader in the production of highly addictive Captagon, much of which is trafficked through Lebanon," US Treasury official Andrea Gacki said March 28, announcing new sanctions on drug traffickers.
"With our allies, we will hold accountable those who support Bashar al-Assad's regime with illicit drug revenue and other financial means that enable the regime's continued repression of the Syrian people," she said.
The United States has stood firm against normalising relations with al-Assad, and has ruled out any assistance for reconstruction in regime-controlled parts of Syria without accountability for abuses.
"We will not normalise with the al-Assad regime nor will we encourage others absent authentic and enduring progress towards a political resolution," US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said March 21.
Sanctions on regime insiders
In a move aimed at stamping out the illicit drug trade, the United States on March 28 imposed sanctions, in co-ordination with the United Kingdom, on two cousins of the Syrian president for the production and export of Captagon.
The designations underscore the al-Assad family's dominance of Captagon trafficking and also highlight the role of Lebanese drug traffickers, some linked with Hizbullah, in facilitating its export.
Sanctions were imposed on the Syrian president's cousin, Samer Kamal al-Assad, who oversees key Captagon production facilities in Latakia, in co-ordination with the 4th Division and Hizbullah associates, the Treasury said.
In 2020, it said, 84 million Captagon pills produced at a factory he owned in Latakia and worth an estimated $1.2 billion were seized at the Italian port of Salerno. He reportedly also owns a factory producing Captagon in Qalamoun.
Sanctions also were imposed on another al-Assad cousin, Wassim Badi al-Assad.
Wassim Badi al-Assad has been a key figure in the regional drug trafficking network, partnering with high-level suppliers to smuggle Captagon and other drugs throughout the region, the Treasury said.
This was done with tacit support of the Syrian regime.
Also blacklisted was Imad Abu Zureik, who leads a Syrian regime affiliated militia that controls the Jaber/Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan and has enabled drug production and smuggling in southern Syria.
Lebanese drug baron and arms dealer Nouh Zaiter, who is wanted by the Lebanese authorities, is also facing sanctions.
Zaiter has close ties to the 4th Division and certain members of Hizbullah.
Impediments to normalisation
The latest round of sanctions "put some countries in the Middle East in an unenviable position", al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies researcher Sami Gheit told Al-Mashareq.
Some countries have sought to normalise relations with the al-Assad regime and restore diplomatic, economic and bilateral relations to past levels, he said.
Yet the flow of Captagon has continued unabated into the Gulf states, Jordan, Iraq and beyond, he said, pointing out that normalisation with a regime that relies on this trade will have unwelcome political and diplomatic consequences.
Some of the countries considering normalisation, "especially Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, are the countries most affected by the trafficking of these pills", Gheit noted.
"The al-Assad regime and Hizbullah seek to flood the kingdom and other Gulf countries with these pills," he added, noting that this is already having a "devastating impact" on their populations.
Meanwhile, the Captagon trade generates billions for the regime's treasury and enriches regime insiders, he said.
He pointed out that the trade also generates revenue for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizbullah, neither of which has changed course in its interventions in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
This begs the question: "Will the normalisation process continue or will it be frozen at the present time until this problem is eliminated?" Gheit said.
Captagon money feeds militias
"It is the al-Assad family that rules Syria, not the government, ministers or senior officials," Cairo-based Syrian lawyer Taher al-Masri said.
"Members of this family have for decades shared among themselves all the levers of power in the country at all levels, especially the army, the intelligence apparatus, police, the economy, and import and export," he said.
"No deal or agreement takes place unless it is approved by one of them."
The Syrian president is assuredly aware of the workings of the Captagon production and trafficking network, he said, and does not take any action to stop it "because he knows that it is what is keeping him in power".
The demise of the drug trade "would mean the total demise of his rule", al-Masri said.
"Captagon money secures funds for the [al-Assad] entourage that ensure the survival of some of the militias loyal to the regime," he said.
These militias function as "death squads that commit many atrocities to keep the regime in place, and thus ensure their continued existence", al-Masri said.
A crackdown on the Captagon trade in Syria will weaken the regime at the very least, he said, and may even result in its collapse.
This would force it to make many concessions regarding the form and method of governance, the treatment of civilians and the preservation of rights and freedoms, al-Masri said -- something the regime would want to avoid.
Corruption is deeply entrenched in Syria, said King Abdulaziz University Centre for Social Research and Humanities supervisor Fadel al-Hindi.
"The matter is not related to one corrupt employee or government official who receives bribes to allow a certain deal to pass but rather to the way the country is run, which is structured into several hierarchical levels," he said.
"Bashar al-Assad sits at the top of the pyramid, followed by his immediate family -- his wife, sons and brother -- and then his cousins and his maternal uncles, who control the main levers of the country," al-Hindi said.
Next come prominent officers in the army, intelligence and police, he said. After them comes the business class, which in turn is directly linked to members of the family.
At the bottom of the pyramid are various groups of merchants and militia officials who make their living from illegal business activities and rampant corruption, he explained.
From the outside, this system appears to be interdependent and compact, al-Hindi said, but in fact it lacks stability.
Change in Syria is "impossible with the existence of this ruling clique, which is accustomed to surviving through corruption, repression, theft and killing".