Syria’s War, on Drugs

If modern war often seems like a racket, that may be because in some respects it is. Wars are now rarely fought between states. Instead, parties to contemporary conflicts are often scattered armed groups, operating without the constitutions and defined rules of engagement which bind the militaries of nations.

These groups are often concentrated around a small area, or take root among members of an individual ethnicity or those professing a particular creed. The leaders of these groups often behave like brigands and mafiosos, demanding protection money and extorting those in the land under their control, meanwhile scheming to overtake territory of other, competing warlords.

Looting is possibly more pervasive – and certainly less often punished – in current civil conflicts than it was in the era when soldiers of nation-states lived off the land and theft while on campaign, before the invention of logistics corps and meals ready to eat.

Even the proxies of regional powers, some of them well-funded, resort to larceny to supplement their salaries, as do the soldiers of weak states, like the regime of Bashar al-Assad. When the Assad regime takes a town, a Syrian joke goes, everything which has not been flattened by Russian bombs is likely to be ‘liberated’ in subsequent mass looting. The Syrian Arab Army is more effective against a room full of white goods than it is against an Islamic State advance.

But theft is only one crime armed groups engage in to enrich themselves. Another is yet more comparable to the modus operandi of a mafia: the trafficking of narcotics.

This thread has been brought out in the debate surrounding the origins of a record-breaking shipment of amphetamines which was seized by Italian authorities en route from Syria last year. Italian police seized up to 14 tons of amphetamines, 84 million tablets, estimated to have a rough value of a $1 billion. Ever since this seizure, the exact ownership of the shipment and its intended purpose has been up for grabs.

But first, a little context. The extent to which Syria’s war is powered by the cheap stimulant Captagon is difficult to overstate, although some have certainly tried. Amphetamines have seen extensive use in war and, like its predecessors, Captagon keeps fighters active long beyond the limits of ordinary endurance.

In a war in which many groups mount suicide attacks, the drug grimly prompts soldiers to carry on fighting beyond receiving injuries from which they will not recover. And, in the same way that intoxicants often find new popularity amid the hopelessness of warfare, Captagon is also widely used for recreation in Syria as well as across the Middle East.

The shipment intercepted by Italian authorities is one of the largest ever seized. And Italy, after common fashion, initially suggested it was down to ISIS – something authorities are keen to suspect and to allege. ISIS fighters made use of the drug themselves and have operated lucrative side-lines in the theft of antiquities which requires international smuggling and sale.

But the claim that this was an ISIS drug shipment now seems unrealistic. Indeed, the attribution of all this to the Islamic State was questioned at the time by Daniele Raineri, an Italian journalist, and Sam Dagher, the author of Assad or We Burn the Country: a definitive history of Syria’s war. Italian authorities have since minimised the ISIS connection.

The three ships from which the tablets were seized came from Latakia, a port controlled the by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Tessa Fox, writing for Foreign Policy, intimates that this necessitates a regime connection to the shipment.

It seems far more likely that this shipment was the product of deals made between Hezbollah, the regime, other pro-regime militias, and the Naples mafia. This connection may at first seem strange, but it is hardly as unusual as it sounds. When one wishes to sell drugs from a warzone, the expertise of organised crime marries almost perfectly to those of a sectarian militia or a rogue state short of cash.

Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies have a long history of drug-trafficking as a way to earn revenue; something Hezbollah unconvincingly denies on the grounds of religious prohibition. But American treasury officials and analysts contend that it uses the proceeds of criminal activity across the world – including the sale of drugs – to buy illegal weapons for its fighters and mount foreign operations.

There is evidence to suggest that Hezbollah was producing drugs in Lebanon until recently, and that this was something the regime encouraged. Now, the production and sale of Captagon and other drugs could prove to be crutches for Syria’s shattered economy, and selling amphetamines abroad could increase revenues further.

The situation in Syria is bad: many of those fighting are hooked on drugs which make them more prone to violence and less willing to give up when fighting starts. The drug trade undermines the rule of law, empowers militia leaders, and shifts money away from a legitimate economy. Even interrupting and impounding shipments seems futile; the drug trade continues – as surely enriching the mafiosos and aiding the warlords as would a descent into further conflict.

This essay was originally published in The Critic.

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