Captagon, refugees, security: Syria welcomed back to Arab League 'with conditions'

Captagon, refugees, security: Syria welcomed back to Arab League 'with conditions'
Syria's regime has been given the green light to come back to the Arab League. But as many of its crises remain unresolved, countries - particularly those directly affected - will monitor progress made on solving pressing issues.
7 min read
08 May, 2023
The Syrian regime has been re-admitted into the Arab League, more than a decade after its suspension [Getty/archive]

As the Syrian regime and regional states seem eager to re-establish ties, and as Damascus re-joins the Arab fold, the war-torn country is expected to meet certain requirements. Ending drugs smuggling across its borders is of great urgency, as is the return of its refugees.

A step-by-step mechanism put forward by the Arab League is expected to follow the implementation process and monitor the Syrian regime’s commitment to conditions put in place. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – whose regime is accused of being behind the killings of thousands of people alongside key backers Iran and Russia – is likely to attend an Arab League summit later this month in Saudi Arabia. It will be his first time since his country was suspended after his regime led a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011.

The Saudis have warmed up to Assad in recent months, opening the door for further Arab rapprochement with his regime. Both Syrian and Saudi foreign ministers have exchanged visits, marking a new chapter in their relations.

The United Arab Emirates and Tunisia are just two of other regional countries which have revived diplomatic ties with Damascus. Algeria, for instance, has maintained ties, whereas Morocco has reportedly voiced objection.

A ministerial liaison committee including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and now Lebanon will follow up on talks which preceded Sunday’s announcement to allow Syria back into the Arab League.

Lebanon, which has largely been affected by spill overs from its neighbour’s war since 2011, joined the committee on Sunday.

The committee’s aim is to follow up on "the implementation of the Amman Declaration [a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Jordanian capital last week] and to continue direct dialogue with the Syrian government to reach a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis that addresses all its consequences, according to a step-by-step methodology," the league said in a statement on Sunday.

Any solution, it added, should be in line with UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254, which demands all warring parties end hostilities and engage in formal negotiations. The committee’s members will submit periodic reports to the Arab League council.

The league further hoped that previous ministerial talks in both Amman and Jeddah will be seen through, and all issues affecting bordering nations and the wider region will be addressed, "particularly" the refugee crisis, terrorism, and drug trafficking.

The Captagon Crisis

A priority of Arab countries – particularly Jordan and the Gulf states – is to end the influx of drugs from Syria, which amid chaos and lawlessness has come to be known as a narco-state and the world’s number one producer and exporter of the amphetamine pill captagon.

Saudi Arabia, said to have become the world’s largest captagon market, has struggled to contain the illicit trade.

Smuggling attempts have led to border tensions and even deadly clashes with the Jordanian army. Gulf states have warned the the Syrian regime to clamp down on drug gangs operating within its territory.

But the regime has been found to be complicit in the trade, believed to be one of its primary sources of finance. The US has imposed sanctions on the regime over this.

Bordering nations such as Iraq and Lebanon have served as a major conduit for traffickers of captagon, but several arrests have been made in recent months, which follow promises made by authorities to clamp down on drug rings.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi last week threatened that his country would carry out a military operation inside Syria if "effective measures" to curb drug smuggling were not taken by Syrian authorities.

"We are not taking the threat of drug smuggling lightly. If we do not see effective measures...we will do what it takes to counter that threat, including taking military action inside Syria," Safadi told CNN on Friday.

On Monday, Jordan reportedly acted on its warning.

Drug dealer "Marai al-Ramthan, his wife and six children were killed in a Jordanian air force strike" near the Syrian-Jordanian border, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.

"Al-Ramthan is considered to be the most prominent drug trafficker in the region, and the number one smuggler of drugs, including captagon, into Jordan" from that area, said SOHR.

Hours later, Amman gave a vague statement on the airstrike.

Safadi said Jordan would announce any measures it takes to ensure its own security "in timely manner." 

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"When we take any step to protect national security, we will announce it at the appropriate time, and the drug issue is a great threat to the Kingdom and the region," he said after meeting his Dutch counterpart, without confirming or denying Jordan's involvement in Monday's air raid.

Absi Smeisem from The New Arab’s sister site, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, doubts the Syrian regime was serious about combating the illicit drug trade as it relies on it financially.

"We saw, hours after the announcement that Syria was re-entering the Arab League, an airstrike targeting a major drug trafficker in southern Syria, which signals seriousness in implementing conditions" set by the Arab League for Syria, Smeisem told The New Arab.

"But in my opinion, the regime relies financially from drug manufacturing and trade. I don’t believe it will be committed to curbing this activity if it does not get something back in return that will compensate its financial losses," Smeisem said.

The Fate of Refugees

"The negative consequences of the Syrian crisis, in terms of terrorism, destruction, displacement and asylum, have spread to other countries in the region and the world, " said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Sunday.

Cairo’s top diplomat stressed the importance of preserving Syria’s unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity and "Arabism," slamming foreign interference in its affairs. He called for a solution that would allow for the "safe and voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons" to their homes and make way for Syria's reconstruction.

While no official numbers exist, millions have been displaced in the conflict, which has seen the intervention of several foreign armies and armed factions.

Lebanon – suffering from its own historic economic meltdown since 2019 and the crises which have resulted from that – is hosting what Beirut says is around two million Syrian refugees.

In proportion to its population of about six million, this is the highest number in the world.

A media-led campaign has picked up in recent weeks calling for the swift repatriation of refugees, which different camps have said are a "heavy burden" on the country’s ailing economy and crumbling infrastructure.

The Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which the UN says less than 900 thousand of which are registered, are often scapegoated by the country’s ruling sectarian political parties.

In a nation rattled by decades of political instability and unresolved matters since its own 1975-1990 civil war, and already hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian, analysts warn that the issue of Syrian refugees – if left unresolved or open to racist and xenophobic rhetoric – could see tensions between them and host communities developed into something more dangerous.

"The regime has no intention or ability to return the refugees. It views them as [part of the] opposition, and we’ve seen arrests take place of some individuals which have returned," Smeisem told The New Arab.

He warned of the repercussions of allowing refugees to go back to a regime which is celebrating its "victory" of regaining legitimacy from Arab nations, doubting that the regime even has capacity to welcome back millions of these displaced Syrians in a country whose economy and infrastructure have been torn apart by war.