9 min read

Communities in southern Syria take on the drug trade

Communities and local armed groups in Syria’s southern Suwayda and Daraa provinces are taking the fight against drug traffickers and smugglers into their own hands. With Damascus and Hezbollah profiting from the trade, they face an uphill battle.

29 March 2024

PARIS — Bassam (a pseudonym) was sitting with friends last year at a gathering in Inkhil, a city in the north of Syria’s southern Daraa province, when one of them distributed small pills among the group. As his friends laughed and swallowed them, Bassam joined in, though he says he did not know it was a drug. 

“I was embarrassed not to take it like everyone else,” he said. “I thought it wouldn’t have an effect.” Half an hour went by, and “I started to lose awareness of my surroundings. When I came back to myself, I found I was smoking hookah for the first time in my life,” the 20-year-old told Syria Direct. That night, Bassam needed the help of a friend to return to his house. He could not sleep until morning. 

A week later, Bassam left home, a lost look on his face after fighting with his father. He asked a friend for “a pill, thinking maybe it would be a solution,” he recalled. “I was feeling bad, like I was suffocating.” His friend did as he asked, explaining it was “the last free pill.” From then on, Bassam became addicted to captagon—a synthetic stimulant that has become a popular narcotic in southern Syria and is regularly smuggled across the border to neighboring Jordan. 

Bassam is one of those who have struggled with addiction in Syria as it has become one of the largest regional centers of drug manufacturing and cross-border smuggling—an illicit trade that generates profits for the Syrian regime and figures affiliated with it. In March 2023, the British embassy in Lebanon estimated that captagon brings in around $57 billion a year for the regime.

The danger of drugs in Syria’s southernmost Daraa and Suwayda provinces goes beyond addiction and its impact on the local community. As Jordan targets drug manufacturing centers and those involved in the trade inside Syria with airstrikes, mistakes claim civilian lives. In response, local residents are taking the war on traffickers and smugglers into their own hands, while Damascus remains either absent or complicit in the drug trade.

Community efforts

“Drugs are available to young and old, if you’ve got the money,” Abu Issa, a 28-year-old barber in Inkhil, told Syria Direct. Many of his customers offer him drugs on a weekly basis, and some have “started to justify it, religiously,” he said. 

“Drug dealing is basically out in the open in Inkhil,” Abu Yassin, who also lives in the city, agreed. “Narcotics are widespread, even among students.” 

The local response is limited to “educating young people and providing treatment for people with addiction who want to quit,” Abu Yassin said. These efforts have not reached the point of “confronting drug traffickers and dealers,” he added, because they are led by “notables, mukhtars [neighborhood leaders], clerics and intellectuals.” In his view, local former opposition settlement factions and regime security services have no real role.

“Drugs are available to young and old, if you’ve got the money.”

Abu Muhammad, a commander in one of the settlement factions in Inkhil, said they have gone after some drug traffickers “by arresting them or threatening them and forcing them to leave the city or country.” However, “the regime is the foundation of the drug industry, alongside Hezbollah and Lebanon,” which limits local efforts to combat drugs, he said. 

A few months back, Abu Muhammad’s military group arrested one drug trafficker and handed him over to the regime, he said. “We were surprised when he was released a few days later and left the country.” 

The faction is monitoring and investigating a drug network in Inkhil made up of 25 people, the commander said. ” His group is trying to “monitor any unusual activity in our community,” he added. 

Abu Adnan, a notable in western Daraa, described “major efforts by residents and military factions to stop the drug trade.” But the impact of local, unorganized efforts is “limited,” he added, “in the face of organized gangs operating under the banner of Lebanese Hezbollah, in full coordination with the Syrian regime.” 

Coordinating with Damascus to fight drug trafficking “is pointless, since it is a key pillar of the drug trade in the area,” Abu Adnan told Syria Direct.

In neighboring Suwayda province, a center of active cross border drug smuggling into Jordan, local anti-drug efforts were recently stepped up in an effort to prevent Jordanian airstrikes targeting smugglers inside Syrian territory. 

On March 25, social and religious actors in the northern Suwayda countryside city of Shahba issued a statement announcing the religious and social exclusion of all those involved in “the spread of drugs (using, selling, buying), tree cutting and assaults on public and private property, highway robbery and the use of weapons for other than their intended purposes.”

After a series of suspected Jordanian airstrikes hit Suwayda at the start of the year, residents began to conduct patrols along the border with Jordan aimed at preventing drug smuggling. Rayyan Maarouf, the editor-in-chief of the local media network Suwayda 24, called the efforts “a message from the people to Jordan that they should be kept out of airstrikes, that they reject drug smuggling.” 

“A message from the people to Jordan that they should be kept out of airstrikes, that they reject drug smuggling”

“For years, drug smugglers have been active in the border villages, but as soon as people felt the danger of the airstrikes and that the smugglers’ presence threatens their lives, civil actors started to issue statements disavowing drug traffickers,” Maarouf told Syria Direct. This produced a “socio-religious and factional movement against drug traffickers.” 

Read more: How Suwayda became a drug-smuggling hub

At the start of 2024, the al-Ramthan clan in the southeastern Suwayda village of al-Shaab issued a statement denying the presence of any “foreign-linked militias” in the village and noting that the smuggling of weapons and drugs was “beyond the clan’s control.” The statement came after al-Shaab was hit by multiple reported Jordanian airstrikes, including a May 2023 bombing that killed Marei al-Ramthan, a prominent drug trafficker, alongside his family. 

Targeting drug figures

In Daraa, the local war on drugs includes continuous assassinations against those accused of being involved in drug smuggling and trafficking. In January, the province saw three assassination attempts that left one person dead and two others injured. 

In 2023, 58 assassinations and attempted assassinations targeting drug dealers and smugglers took place in Daraa, killing 35 people, according to figures provided to Syria Direct by the Horan Free League, a local opposition media organization. 

“Some honorable members of the remnants of the Free Syrian Army in the Houran are the ones assassinating those working in the drug trade, because of the local and international danger they pose,” one former opposition military commander living in northern Daraa told Syria Direct

Drug smuggling and trafficking significantly increased in the province since 2020, making it necessary, the commander said, to “resist this phenomenon, whether by armed force or threats, arrests and advice.” 

On January 23, a military force under the Central Committee in the western Daraa countryside raided farms in western and central Daraa owned by Rafi al-Ruwas, a well-known drug trafficker rumored to have left Syria for Lebanon the day after Marei al-Ramthan was killed last May. The military force clashed with gunmen at the farms, killing a number of them and arresting others. 

The Central Committee in western Daraa is one of a few local bodies formed to negotiate the implementation of the 2018 settlement agreement that saw the regime regain control of Daraa. The committee includes an armed force made up of former opposition military personnel. 

The 8th Brigade, affiliated with Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate, is also participating in anti-drug operations in Daraa, one of the brigade’s commanders said. He noted “achievements” including “dismantling a large number of networks specialized in drug dealing, smuggling and using” as well as “providing users with treatment and rehabilitation through specialized addiction doctors and dealing with traders and dealers through community committees.” 

However, the Daraa operations do not go after everyone involved in the drug trade, Abu Adnan, the notable in western Daraa, said. “Many people working in the drug trade are known to everyone, but nobody can hold them accountable, arrest or target them. They have armed military groups and the regime supports them with money and drugs,” he said.”

“Many people working in the drug trade are known to everyone, but nobody can hold them accountable, arrest or target them. They have armed military groups and the regime supports them with money and drugs.”

Abu Muhammad, the military commander from Inkhil, echoed Abu Adnan, saying his group has not been able to arrest many individuals involved in the drug trade because of “tribalism.” Moving against them “could turn into a tribal problem, and some clans protect their people even if they are criminals,” he said. 

Following in Daraa’s footsteps, Suwayda has also seen armed operations against drug dealers and smugglers, including the killing of Shaker Shuwayr, a prominent drug trafficker, in a clash with a local armed group earlier this month. Jordan previously targeted Shuwayr with an airstrike, but the bombing missed him. 

Also this month, one of the daily patrols conducted by residents of Suwayda’s Mayamas village captured two people in possession of nearly 30,000 captagon pills while they were passing through the village en route to the Daraa countryside and Jordan. 

Still, Suwayda has not reached the same level of armed action against drug traffickers as in Daraa, Maarouf said. “The operations will develop, and there will be action and reaction between the smuggling gangs and local actors,” he added. 

“There are ongoing campaigns in Suwayda, but they are combatting local users and dealers, the little guys,” Maarouf added. Since December 2023, “local factions have arrested dozens of people and handed them over to the regime,” he said. 

Abu Taymour, the head of the media wing of the Men of Dignity movement, a powerful faction in Suwayda, said the group is pursuing drug smugglers and dealers in the province. It has managed to “break up many smuggling and dealing networks by capturing their members and seizing and destroying the narcotics in their possession,” he told Syria Direct

The Men of Dignity has “handed over the people it captured to the anti-narcotics branch of the interior ministry, as part of a proper legal procedure,” Abu Taymour added. 

Although the movement’s efforts “have undermined the gangs’ activity and led to a large number of their members fleeing and going into hiding,” he said, “the drug issue in Suwayda requires tremendous regional and international efforts.” 

The future of drugs in southern Syria

“Drug gangs” in southern Syria operate with the support of several parties, including interested regional actors, Abu Taymour said. This “makes it difficult for us to fight this phenomenon.” 

Local efforts “are not a deterrent for the gangs, and cannot close the drugs file, which is run by states and needs states to put an end to it,” Maarouf of Suwayda 24 said. “Civil efforts are not a sustainable solution, but rather are a reaction to the Jordanian bombing, a message that the community rejects this trade.” 

“The drug trade is flourishing in the face of modest local efforts….Our efforts are not enough to combat it.”

Maarouf expects smuggling gangs to “develop themselves while countering the local efforts, aided by the funds, capabilities and government support they have, and buying new people by taking advantage of the economic downturn.” He warned of drug networks “assassinating local faction and community leaders.” Accordingly, “it is the drug gangs that have sustainability, not the community efforts driven by fear.” 

The military commander in Inkhil agreed. “The drug trade is flourishing in the face of modest local efforts,” he said. “Our efforts are not enough to combat it.” Local groups need “to obtain absolute authority from the clans to combat drug traffickers, as well as international support.” 

Abu Adnan also sees a bleak future. “With the presence of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, the drug trade will persist and flourish,” he said. 

As drugs spread in southern Syria and across the border, they continue to find their way into the hands of more and more young people like Bassam, who after months of addiction was able to quit using captagon with the help of a doctor in Inkhil. 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

Share this article