Sergio Restelli

Syria and Pakistan: From narco states to terror

A pro-Assad rally in Syria: source Wikipedia, creative commons license

China’s historic peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia had multiple reasons and effects. On of the effects was the return of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, after 12 years of suspension, into the Arab league. For Saudi Arabia this peace deal with Iran may signify the end of two important campaigns which were proxy battle grounds for Iran and Saudi Arabia, namely Yemen and Syria.

However, the civil war in Syria, whose attempt was to topple Assad, in a way strengthened him. Pariah to most of the world, Assad was no longer bound by sovereign rights and duties and unable to sell oil to almost anyone in the world. Thanks to this, Syria has now become the world’s largest producer of Captagon, an amphetamine-like drug which brings in three times the revenue of all the Mexican cartels combined to the Syrian regime, according to Al-Jazeera. This is a very large headache to the Middle East, which is one of the most important markets for captagon which is also known as Abu Hilalain (father of the two crescent moons) in the Middle East. Syria now works in close tandem with European criminal gangs and organized crime given it produces almost 80% of the global captagon market which have strengthened Assad and his regime giving rise to a narco-state which straddles Europe and the Middle East. It is alleged by a recent France 24 documentary that most Captagon production and distribution is managed by the elite 4th division of the Syrian army headed by Maher al Assad, the dictators brother with the network including the Hezbollah, tribal heads, rebel movements, criminal gangs and armies and militias. This poor people’s cocaine has become a bargaining chip for Syria in the Arab league and the rest of the world.

France 24: Captagon trade: How Syria became a narco state

Syria has also had an example of another narco state, which has been strengthened by the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Pakistan is the primary transit country, of the trafficking routes for the opium production hotbeds of Helmand and Kandahar in Afghanistan, with which it shares the longest border. Pakistan-based networks transport drugs from the Durand Line to ports and Pakistan’s other land and maritime boundaries, from where they reach markets in Asia, the Persian Gulf, Africa, and eastern and western Europe.

There is a lack of recent literature pertaining to the proportionate role of Pakistan in the southern opiate trade routes. Nevertheless data estimates by the UNODC suggest that more than 45% of illicit Afghanistan traffic through Pakistan, leaving little doubt that it is the major transit point for the traffic of Afghan opiates along the ‘southern route.’

The Gulf region is a major heroin market and transhipment hub for the trafficking of opiates via Pakistan. In Europe, networks operating between Pakistan and Europe have become more dominant in recent times, with the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands as notable targets for trafficking via the southern route. For instance, 84% of seizures of 10 kg or more affected at the United Kingdom borders involve heroin trafficked from Pakistan. A number of countries that in the past were mainly served by the Balkan route, including Spain and Italy have recently noted Pakistan as a prominent source of opiates, in transit from Afghanistan.

Italian National anti-drug service DCSA, assesses the growing number of heroine seizures linked to Southern Europe as coming via the southern route “the consolidation of the so called African route: heroine, leaving producing areas, mainly from airport and ports- especially the one in Karachi,  Pakistan reaches Western markets through the eastern part of the African continent. Heroin traffic via the southern route has been seized in East and Central Europe with specific seizures in Slovenia and Ukraine showing the need to closely monitor developments in this regard. East Africa becomes a key nexus point for the heroine departing and transiting from Pakistan

Afghan farmers have reported an increase in opium cultivation for 2021, which is likely to lead to a further increase in heroin trafficking in Pakistan. This news comes despite the Taliban’s announcement to ban all drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan. During the 2020 period of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no decline in heroin seizures in Pakistan and the broader region, suggesting heroin manufacturing and trafficking were not disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, shipments trafficked via Pakistan were less frequent, but volumes were larger. Moreover, continuing smuggling activities around the Pakistan – Afghanistan border with similar volumes of substances is expected. Furthermore, there is evidence of Pakistani state authority collusion to deliberately allow this trans border illicit activity. With Pakistan the Lyari gangs in Karachi and militant organisations are openly engaged in the heroin trade.

In Pakistan morphine seizures have been reported in Balochistan located near the Afghan and Iranian borders. These morphine seizures in Pakistan seem to correlate with anecdotal reports of morphine to heroin processing outside Afghanistan in 2008.

Pakistan is an important large-scale source, destination and transit country for cannabis. Cannabis consumption is widespread in Pakistan, and Karachi is believed to have the second highest rate of cannabis smoking worldwide, just after New York, with reports of 41.9 metric tonnes of cannabis smoked in the metropolis in 2018 alone. A significant amount of cannabis is believed to be grown in KP, sourced primarily from the Tirah Valley in the former FATA where it is known to be of exceptional quality. Although many armed groups in the region rely financially on the cultivation and distribution of cannabis, its cultivation in the Tirah Valley has long been a local agricultural practice.

Pakistan is also a source country for cannabis, and Pakistani cannabis appears to be mostly used to supply local markets in East Europe and the Middle East. Pakistan can also act as a transit country for Afghan cannabis headed towards Iran and further into the Middle East. The majority of cannabis smuggled out of Pakistan into Iran is transported via land routes (see heroin trafficking), but a significant number of cannabis seizures are also made along sea routes.

Pakistan is a destination country for synthetic drugs, which are reportedly increasing in popularity among younger generations. While the price of methamphetamine varies according to quality, it is believed to be several times higher than the price of heroin.  Afghanistan’s use of the ephedra plant as a starting material for manufacturing methamphetamine has reduced the country’s reliance on smuggling over-the-counter medicines from its neighbours, Pakistan and Iran. At the same time, this has also allowed Afghanistan to manufacture methamphetamine at a much lower cost, which has resulted in greater proportions of methamphetamine transiting through Pakistan. Some of the methamphetamine found in Africa and Europe since late 2019 has been smuggled from Afghanistan via Pakistan, mainly along traditional heroin routes that are dominated by Pakistani drug trafficking syndicates. There are also reports that K-tablets, a tablet that contains both methamphetamines and opioids, are being produced in Peshawar.

A well known fact related to how former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif alleged that he had been approached by Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Mirza Aslam Beg and ISI Director General Asad Durrani to authorise large-scale drug deals to fund “a series of covert military operations in desperate need of money”.  After the Afghan jihad erupted in 1979, the ISI had encouraged mujahideen groups to raise cash through running heroin. Large landowners and drug cartels cooperated with the mujahideen to ensure smooth movement of the opium crop to Karachi port. Gretchen Peters in his USIP research ‘How Opium

Profits the Taliban,’ reported that the mujahideen commander, Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, threatened farmers who refused to plant poppy with castration. The result- the crop surged.

Almost three decades ago Lawrence Lifschultz in his investigative account ‘Pakistan: The Empire of Heroin’ wrote ‘By 1984, according to European police sources, Pakistan was furnishing 70 percent of the world supply of high-grade heroin. During the 1980s, corruption, covert operations and narcotics became intertwined in a manner which makes it difficult to separate Pakistan’s narcotics traffic from more complex questions of regional security and insurgent warfare’; – clearly not much has changed.

Going forward, both Syria and Pakistan are now a major threat to global security.Initially what started out to be a political enterprise has now given rise to two narco-states, which collaborate with terrorist and extremist groups to achieve their objectives. This is now an existentialist threat of the future for the security of the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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