On Dec. 23, a 53-year-old man affiliated with Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate was assassinated in the country’s southwestern Daraa Province. Unlike the region’s more common politically motivated attacks, this incident stands out as the victim was primarily known for his involvement in drug trafficking and distribution.

This attack is far from being an isolated occurrence though. Since early last year there has been a surge in drug-related assassinations, adding a new layer to the persistent violence in the province. Yet the culprits behind these attacks remain unknown.

Conversations with local sources carried out as part of consultancy work conducted between August 2022 and November 2023 reveal a growing determination within the community to combat the drug trade. The regime's complicity, driven by financial and political motives, has fostered a climate where drug networks operate with impunity. The adverse impact of this illicit trade on communities has spurred locals to take matters into their own hands. And yet these targeted killings alone are unlikely to eradicate the drug-related activities that saturate Syria’s south.

Mystery of drug deaths

While earlier reports such as my August 2023 article in Al Majalla and the November 2023 investigation by Syria in Transition have highlighted the targeted assassinations of drug dealers in Daraa, the total number of those killed remains unclear. The frequent assassinations in the province, which happen almost daily, and the uncertainty surrounding the motives behind these acts have resulted in scant details in open-source data.

Nevertheless, conversations with informed local sources suggest somewhere between 70 and 150 people were assassinated last year due to their involvement in drug-related activities. The earliest incident recalled by a community leader dates back to January 2023. Reported numbers of assassinations have fluctuated since then, with one particular source highlighting peaks in April and August.

The attacks vary in method, ranging from targeting dealers on the move to entering residences by force and shooting them at close range. While the assassinations have targeted civilians and former opposition fighters involved in the drug trade, the majority of the targets seem to have ties to the Syrian regime. According to a former opposition fighter, the targets have included fighters affiliated with various state intelligence agencies and military units, including the Fourth Armored Division, which is led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother.

However, the majority of those assassinated were reportedly affiliated with the military intelligence agency. This is primarily a result of its control over drug networks in western Syria. According to research conducted by the Syrian organization Etana on southern Syria’s drug supply chains, as much as 79% of Suwayda's total drug network is linked to military intelligence, compared to 63% of the total drug network in Daraa.

Mustafa al-Mesalmeh, a militia commander associated with military intelligence and actively involved in drug trafficking, was among the most prominent figures killed last year. Notably, Mustafa, also known as al-Kasem, is one of 11 individuals sanctioned by both the UK and the US in March 2023 for their crucial role in the illicit drug trade in and from Syria.

Daraa’s anti-drug operations appear to extend beyond just targeting individuals. In at least one incident, a drug-related facility linked to Iran-backed militias was hit. Reportedly used for manufacturing and coordinating drug smuggling operations to Jordan and the Gulf, the site near Zizon village was struck with three rocket-propelled grenades earlier this year.

Mounting public discontent

While many aspects of these incidents remain shrouded in mystery, the motivations behind them seem apparent. Local sources point to mounting public discontent with the drug trade as the driving force. Two community leaders highlighted that residents are growing more concerned about their families' safety due to a surge in drug consumption as traffickers have flooded the local market. The heightened levels of drug use and addiction have coincided with an increase in related crimes, including robbery, kidnapping, and domestic violence.

Hashish, Captagon, and crystal meth dominate the illicit drug market, with some reportedly available at very low prices, akin to those for snacks. A local teacher emphasized the widespread availability of drugs, not only on the streets but even within schools. This strongly suggests an aggressive marketing approach targeting vulnerable teenagers, with the aim of fostering widespread drug consumption as well as enticing them into selling or smuggling drugs.

Public anger is further intensified by the lack of official efforts to stop these illicit activities. Despite promises, the regime has not taken significant steps to control the proliferation of drugs, in large part because prominent drug networks enjoy protection from the regime's security and military bodies. This collaboration, fueled by financial and political motives, continues unabated, even as neighboring Arab states have made cracking down on the drug trade a key condition in recent efforts to restore relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, reports have consistently highlighted the production and dissemination of drugs. However, it was only after Assad regained control over most of the country that Syria emerged as the world’s largest producer of the amphetamine Captagon. The regime’s reclamation of border areas with Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq facilitated the transformation of Syria's relatively localized and modest drug industry into an international enterprise, generating billions of dollars in revenue annually.

While these pills, among other drugs, are flooding into numerous countries, the primary market seems to be the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. Most smuggling operations to this region appear to traverse the border province of Daraa into Jordan, making it a hub for Captagon production and drug smuggling.

While Assad shoulders the majority of the blame for the not-so-discreet drug industry, locals have also criticized the inaction of former opposition factions that continue to operate after reconciling with the regime. The pressure seems to have compelled the Eighth Brigade, primarily composed of former opposition fighters now operating under the regime’s umbrella, to take action last spring.

According to former opposition fighters, the group reportedly launched an anti-drug campaign in Daraa’s eastern region in March 2023. However, the crackdown quickly lost momentum. Two former opposition fighters speculated that pressure from the regime forced the Eighth Brigade to holster its weapons. Contrarily, two local researchers cited the lack of action against prominent drug dealers like Imad Zuraiq, a militia leader affiliated with military intelligence, to portray the campaign as a thinly veiled pretext to settle scores with other armed groups.

Rise of anti-drug vigilantes

Regardless of the motives, the semi-immunity granted to drug traffickers has reportedly prompted locals to take matters into their own hands. Many residents in Daraa have access to arms and know how to use them, particularly those who were involved in military activities in the past.

Similarly, some former opposition fighters who perceive themselves as community protectors, including those currently aligned with the regime, are reportedly involved in the anti-drug killings. Opting for hit-and-run operations, rather than direct confrontation, allows these fighters to address local concerns without alienating the regime.

Operationally, two former opposition fighters indicated that the anti-drug vigilantes largely function in organized groups, enhancing their ability to effectively gather information and carry out targeted actions while minimizing risks. They also seem to be geographically organized, operating within their respective areas to maintain a strategic advantage.

However, these groups are unlikely to be solely responsible for all drug-related killings. Two local researchers identified rival drug dealers as potential culprits behind some of these assassinations as they compete over influence or territory. While certain incidents stem from personal rivalries, others arise from competition between networks associated with different intelligence agencies or even among groups affiliated with the same security branch.

Similarly, affiliates of ISIS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which maintain a covert presence in Daraa, seem to be involved in targeting drug traffickers as well. For instance, a community leader pointed out that a drug dealer named Fayez al-Radi was assassinated in March 2023 by individuals linked to HTS. While ISIS seems to only target those who do not pay it for protection, HTS appears to be using those attacks to gain community support.

Despite the surge in targeted assassinations, they are unlikely to eradicate the pervasive drug-related activities in southern Syria. The power and profit afforded by Daraa’s drug trade have made traffickers heedless of the threats, particularly those posed by local communities. Armed and confident, they continue their illicit trade, unfazed by the risks involved. In this context, these assassinations will likely only add another layer of complexity, further fueling the ongoing violence in an already fragile and unstable region.


Dr. Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

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