May 3, 2022 | Policy Brief

State Department Report Glosses Over Assad’s Narco-Trafficking Wealth

May 3, 2022 | Policy Brief

State Department Report Glosses Over Assad’s Narco-Trafficking Wealth

In a congressionally mandated report issued last week, the State Department made a single passing reference to drug trafficking as a source of wealth for the family of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The report’s errors and omissions reflect the Biden administration’s lack of interest in the robust enforcement of sanctions on the Assad regime, especially those authorized by the bipartisan Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has sanctioned only two sets of Syrian regime targets, none of them economically significant. In contrast, the previous administration issued new sets of designations each month for seven consecutive months after the law went into effect in June 2020. Congress made the application of Caesar Act sanctions mandatory, so the slow pace of designations suggests the Biden administration is refusing to shoulder its legal responsibilities.

To spur the Biden administration’s enforcement of the Caesar Act and related sanctions, Congress included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the current fiscal year that requires the secretary of state to submit a public report “on the estimated net worth and known sources of income of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his family members.” The provision specified that the report should address income “from corrupt or illicit activities.”

Yet rather than using this as an opportunity to reinvigorate the enforcement of sanctions against the Assad regime and its financiers, the Biden administration downplayed the problem by issuing a report that barely covers the information available in the public domain. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the report’s cursory treatment of narcotics production and trafficking networks in Syria and Lebanon, whose growth has been explosive.

News media have reported widely on the direct involvement of senior Assad regime figures in the trafficking of captagon, an amphetamine, especially after Italian authorities confiscated 84 million pills in a single bust in July 2020. A New York Times investigation found that “much of the production and distribution is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother.”

In 2020, global captagon seizures had an estimated retail (or “street”) value of nearly $3.5 billion. The estimated figure for 2021 is over $5.7 billion, or several times greater than the value of Syria’s legitimate exports. With Syria’s domestic economy in ruins, narco-trafficking is likely the most important source of income for the regime.

Despite the wealth of information available on this subject, the State Department’s report addressed it in just a single sentence: “The Fourth Armored Division is widely reported to be involved in Syrian drug smuggling operations, including smuggling of the amphetamine captagon as well as other illicit substances.” Nor does the report refer to the critical role that Lebanese Hezbollah plays in the Assad regime’s drug enterprise.

Representatives French Hill (R-AR) and Brendan Boyle (D-MA) have introduced a bill that would require the administration to provide Congress with “a written strategy to disrupt and dismantle narcotics production and trafficking” linked to the Assad regime. The House included a similar requirement in its version of the NDAA last year, but the Senate removed it for unclear reasons.

If the White House wants to show it recognizes the gravity of the situation, it should pledge to produce a strategy of its own this year rather than waiting for Congress to work through the annual authorization cycle. Violence from the captagon trade is now spilling over Syria’s southern border into Jordan, a key U.S. ally, as well as enriching Hezbollah. The drug does not just bankroll the Damascus regime’s atrocities; it is a transnational security threat the Biden administration cannot afford to ignore.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria