April 26, 2023 | Policy Brief

New European Sanctions Target Assad Regime Narco-Traffickers

April 26, 2023 | Policy Brief

New European Sanctions Target Assad Regime Narco-Traffickers

The European Union (EU) announced sanctions this week on over a dozen Syrian individuals and entities responsible for “the production and trafficking of narcotics, notably Captagon.” The designations come less than a month after the U.S. Treasury Department, in lockstep with British authorities, imposed sanctions on several Syrian narco-traffickers, an indication of rising concern on both sides of the Atlantic about the growth of the Captagon trade.

The European designations are more extensive than Washington’s and further implicate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the illicit Captagon trade. “The trade in amphetamines has become a regime-led business model, enriching the inner circle of the regime and providing it with revenue that contributes to its ability to maintain its policies of repression,” an EU statement asserted.

The EU designated 25 individuals and eight entities altogether, encompassing narco-traffickers, other regime financiers, militia leaders, and human rights violators.

Among the week’s targets were three members of Assad’s extended family, two of whom — Wasim Badia al-Assad and Samer Kamal al-Assad — are leading figures in the Captagon trade. The United States and UK designated both men last month.

The EU also targeted multiple associates of Maher al-Assad, the Syrian president’s brother and commander of the army’s Fourth Division. European officials indicated that Castle for Security and Protection, “a shell company for the Fourth Division,” is involved in the narco-trade, and imposed sanctions on Castle and two of its shareholders, Ahmad Ali Taher and Osama Ramadan.

The EU likewise sanctioned Taher Al Kayali and his company, Neptunus LLC, for supporting drug operations at the port of Latakia. Washington designated Kayali in March but left Neptunus off the list. European officials also indicated that shipping magnate Mohammad Shalish “is linked to drug operations and more specifically to the Captagon trade in the Lattakia region.”

Other regime affiliates sanctioned this week include Mustafa Al-Masalmah and Raji Falhout, militia leaders associated with the regime’s Military Security Branch and Military Intelligence, respectively. The EU indicated that both of their militias are involved in Captagon trafficking. Waseem Omar Al-Masalma, a regime-affiliated militia leader linked to the Captagon trade in the southern province of Deraa, was also targeted.

Additionally, the EU blacklisted businessmen Abdellatif Hamid and Amer Tayseer Khiti for their involvement in the production, packaging, and trafficking of Captagon.

The scope of this week’s designations exceeds the sanctions Washington rolled out in March. Whereas the U.S. Treasury designated six individuals and blacklisted two businesses, the EU this week more than doubled that list. Washington should consider following the European lead and expanding upon its existing sanctions targeting the Assad-backed narcotics trade.

There is an appetite in Congress for a more aggressive policy. In 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed to include a provision in the annual defense authorization bill requiring the administration to develop a strategy for countering Syrian narcotrafficking. The provision failed, but a renewed effort in 2022 succeeded. The “Captagon Act,” which passed in December, requires the submission within 180 days of “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 report is due in late June.

While the Biden administration says it will never normalize relations with the Assad regime, it continues to openly encourage Arab governments to bring Syria back into the diplomatic fold. It is a mistake for Washington to greenlight normalization with a narco-state. Congress must hold the administration accountable and ensure that it delivers a clear strategy in June to counter Assad’s Captagon trade.

Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute in Washington, D.C., focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.


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