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The US must act against Assad’s Syrian narco-state

Syrian and Jordanian security officials convened on July 23 to discuss illicit drug trafficking along their shared border. The meeting was long overdue, in light of Syria’s ongoing industrial-scale production and trafficking of captagon and other illicit drugs.

Despite its willingness to talk, the Assad regime is not likely to scale back its activities. The U.S. and its allies in the Middle East must therefore prepare to step up the pressure.

In the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War and the Assad regime’s slaughter of its own population, Syria was suspended from the Arab league. But a decade later, Assad has prevailed. With no other available alternatives, the Arab League voted to readmit Syria in May, ending the regime’s 12-year suspension.

While expressing no remorse for its draconian tactics, Damascus did make one important concession: It pledged to curb homegrown narco-trafficking.

July’s talks are a sign that the Assad regime has not done enough to this end. The meeting brought together Jordanian army chief Yousef Hunaiti, Syrian Defense Minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas, and intelligence chiefs from both countries. According to the Jordanian foreign ministry, the officials “discussed cooperation in confronting the drug danger and its sources of production and smuggling and the parties that organize and execute the smuggling operations across the border.”

Jordan has been particularly hard hit by Syrian captagon. Initially, Jordan served as a transfer point for drugs headed to the Arabian gulf. But Jordanians are increasingly becoming consumers of captagon, which is highly addictive and is starting to have a deleterious effect on Jordanian youth. Over the last two years, Amman has taken steps to tighten border control.

In January 2022, for example, Jordanian authorities instituted a “shoot-to-kill” policy along the border. This has resulted in several border clashes in recent months. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told CNN in May that the kingdom is “not taking the threat of drug smuggling lightly” and that it is prepared to “do what it takes to counter that threat, including taking military action inside Syria.” A week later, Jordan carried out rare airstrikes in southern Syria targeting a prominent drug kingpin and a narcotics factory in nearby Daraa province.

Jordan’s war on Syrian drugs continues. On July 24, the Jordanian army shot down a drone in its airspace carrying two kilos of crystal methamphetamine from Syria. Jordanian forces have already downed several drug-laden drones this summer.

Such losses are just a part of doing business for the Assad regime. Narcotics are providing billions in revenue for cash-strapped Syria. Multiple senior regime officials are directly involved in trafficking operations. Indeed, Syria has emerged as full-fledged narco-state.

The good news is that Washington is taking steps to address the challenge. In March, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned several Syrians for their role in “the production or export of captagon.” And in June, the State Department delivered a congressionally mandated strategy for countering the Syrian narcotics trade.

The bad news is that the Biden administration continues to tacitly endorse reengaging Assad, so long as Arab governments “get something in return,” as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf put it in March. For if the administration is serious about curbing regime-controlled narcotrafficking, it must take steps to punish and isolate Assad.

A broader government effort is needed. The Pentagon, for its part, should work more closely with the Jordanian military to target drugs on its borders. Congress can also help by imposing new sanctions on regime-affiliated drug traffickers.

Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.