Civil war in Syria fueled by drugs supplied from Lebanon #ISIS #DRUGS #DOPE #SMUGGLING
The arrest of a Saudi prince on amphetamine-smuggling charges draws attention to the notorious drug-trafficking networks that cross the Middle East’s political and sectarian divides.
by Jeff Neumann
Lebanon has long been a playground for wealthy citizens of austere Arab countries, but even the worldly Lebanese were taken aback on October 26 when security officials arrested a 29-year-old Saudi prince, Abdel Mohsen bin Walid bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud, on suspicion of trying to take two tons of amphetamines with him on a private jet bound for the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Lebanese police also arrested four other Saudi men at Beirut International Airport in what the state news agency described as the biggest bust in the airport’s history.
The prince’s arrest has focused attention on Lebanon’s notorious drug-trafficking networks and their ability to cross the Middle East’s political and sectarian divides. Combatants in Syria’s civil war, civilians in the battle-weary region and the wealthy citizens of the Gulf countries all have a growing appetite for hard drugs. That demand has, in turn, generated fresh revenues for drug barons and militias, who, as they did in previous wars in Colombia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, have become allies of convenience in many cases.
Analysts say that the war next door has tied up many of Lebanon’s security officials who might otherwise be fighting drug traffickers; many are busy monitoring the volatile border areas and the pockets of jihadis straddling it who are sympathetic to extremist Sunni groups involved in the Syrian war. The police and army lack of focus on the drug-producing regions has inadvertently helped fuel the rise of the amphetamine trade. Lebanese hashish producers say that the limited law enforcement presence in the country’s Bekaa Valley, in particular over the past two years, has contributed to a barely interrupted supply of marijuana, driving street prices down and cutting into profit margins.
That decline in profits, and the growing appeal of amphetamines in the Middle East, has created an incentive for some hashish dealers here to produce more amphetamines. In recent years, makeshift labs have sprung up in Lebanese villages and just over the Syrian border. These labs churn out a knock-off version of Captagon, a brand name for the widely banned synthetic amphetamine phenethylline. That’s what the police say they found on the Saudi prince’s plane.
Drug dealers in the Bekaa Valley say they are used to dealing with customers from the Gulf states. “Saudis and other Gulfies are the biggest buyers of Captagon, absolutely,” says Abu Hussein, a Lebanese drug trafficker from a village several miles from the Syrian border. “They believe it gives them special powers for sex,” he adds, smiling mischievously.
The drug is not only popular for those rumoured benefits; fighters from all sides of the Syrian war use the pill’s speedy effects to stay alert for long stretches on the battlefield. Competing propaganda outlets frequently claim Captagon pills have been discovered on dead and captured enemy fighters. For Hezbollah and Syrian government forces, alleging their enemies are taking drugs plays into claims they are fighting against nonbeliever “terrorists.”
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
The war in Syria has created supply as well as demand. Supplies of Captagon in the region rose after Syrian rebels lost the city of Qusayr to Hezbollah fighters backed by the Syrian army in 2013. Qusayr has been transformed into a Captagon production and distribution hub and a hideout for notorious Lebanese Shiite traffickers, some of whom are subject to arrest warrants on charges of murder, kidnapping and currency counterfeiting, says Abu Hussein. The city, which was once home to roughly 60,000 mostly Sunni residents, lies on a strategic route linking Damascus to the Syrian regime’s Mediterranean coastal stronghold. Today, according to Abu Hussein and people who have travelled recently to Qusayr, the city is mostly a transit point and garrison for Hezbollah and allied Syrian militiamen.
At times, the lines between drug baron and warlord become blurred. Lebanon’s most flamboyant drug lord, Noah Zaiter, was filmed in September with Hezbollah fighters besieging the rebel-held Syrian mountain town of Zabadani. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, Zaiter pledged to destroy ISIS, in the name of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
Deep family ties on both sides of the border – and in both drug-smuggling organisations and militias – ensure that the flow of drugs, weapons and militiamen is largely uninterrupted. Most of the drugs go through the Bekaa Valley, a narrow, fertile basin that runs parallel to Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria and is arguably the Middle East’s primary hub for counterfeit amphetamine pills. Bracketed by two mountain ranges, the picturesque plain has long been known for the production and trafficking of narcotics – mostly locally grown hashish and cocaine smuggled from Latin America and West Africa.
“The Bekaa is basically a tribal land, ruled by clans that are heavily armed and often involved in the drug trade,” says Timur Goksel, a former UN peacekeeping official in Lebanon, now an editor for the news site Al-Monitor. “The police are practically nonexistent there,” he adds. “The whole structure of the Lebanese state allows this to happe