March 29, 2023 | Policy Brief

Under Pressure from Congress, Administration Sanctions Syrian Narco-traffickers

March 29, 2023 | Policy Brief

Under Pressure from Congress, Administration Sanctions Syrian Narco-traffickers

The Treasury Department announced sanctions on Tuesday on eight targets for “supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the production or export of Captagon, a dangerous amphetamine.” The administration has been hesitant to address the rapid growth in Syrian narcotrafficking, but lawmakers from both parties have been pushing for a more decisive response.

Treasury’s explanation of the new sanctions provided much greater detail about Syrian narco-trafficking operations than previous U.S. government statements. Confirming media reports, Treasury identified Maher al-Assad, the brother of the president and commander of the army’s Fourth Division, as the pivotal figure in the trafficking network. The U.S. government imposed sanctions on Maher during the first months of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and sanctioned the Fourth Division as an entity three years ago.

Tuesday’s targets include two cousins of the president. The first is Samer Kamel al-Assad, who “oversees key Captagon production facilities in regime-controlled Latakia, Syria, in coordination with the Fourth Division and certain associates of Hizballah,” according to Treasury. His factory produced the 84 million Captagon pills — worth more than $1.2 billion — that Italian authorities confiscated at the port of Salerno in 2020, Treasury noted. The other cousin is Wassim Badi al-Assad, whom Treasury identified as a key figure in regional trafficking partnerships.

The U.S. government also targeted Khalid Qaddour, a close associate of Maher al-Assad, “who is responsible for managing revenues” related to numerous illicit activities. Similarly, Treasury designated Imad Abu Zureik, a militia leader in southern Syria who plays a key role in trafficking to Jordan. Finally, Treasury blacklisted a pair of prominent Lebanese narco-traffickers, Hassan Muhammad Daqqou and Noah Zaitar, along with two businesses under Daqqou’s control.

The level of detail that accompanied yesterday’s designations contrasts sharply with the scant information found in last year’s mandatory report to Congress on the wealth of the Assad family. That document included just a single reference to Captagon, saying it was “widely reported” that the Fourth Division was involved in trafficking the drug. The report also provided a surprisingly low estimate of the Assad family’s wealth, suggesting it ranged from $1 billion to $2 billion. In contrast, the estimated retail (or “street”) value of Captagon pills seized by law enforcement in 2021 was $5.7 billion, up from $3.5 billion the previous year.

Also in 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sought to insert a provision in the annual defense authorization bill that would require the administration to produce a strategy to counter the Assad regime’s narcotrafficking. The White House apparently pressed congressional leaders to remove the provision at the last moment, but a renewed push in 2022 led to its inclusion in the most recent defense authorization bill. The final language requires the Biden administration to submit within 180 days “a written strategy to disrupt and dismantle narcotics production and trafficking and affiliated networks linked to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.” The deadline for the report’s submission will arrive in late June.

While the Biden administration says it will never normalize its relations with the Assad regime, it is now openly encouraging Arab governments to resume relations with Assad. That approach is misguided because narco-states like the Assad regime are inherently illegitimate and destabilizing. Senior lawmakers from both parties have warned that rehabilitating Assad would be a serious error.

Congress should stand by that position and ensure the administration delivers — on time — a substantive strategy to counter Assad’s Captagon trafficking and then implements it effectively. Finally, Congress should consider revising the statutory definition of a “major illicit drug producing country” to include producers of amphetamine-like drugs such as Captagon.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he 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.


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