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Cleaning up their act.

IT HAS BEEN a bad summer for Syrian smugglers. Beginning in May, Damascus has waged a merciless war on all forms of smuggling, putting an end to the once booming narcotics trade and depriving Syrian smokers of their beloved foreign cigarettes.

The government has focussed its efforts on Lebanon, where years of anarchy encouraged the growth of smuggling on a massive scale. In early May the Syrian government announced its intention to suppress the roaring cross-border trade. Previous campaigns had proved ineffectual, but with the cooperation of the slowly reviving Lebanese state, there has been no let-up. Supplies of cigarettes, bananas, tyres, cement, fertilisers, construction material and almost everything else of economic value not available in Syria dried up within days.

The crack-down on smuggling has coincided with an unprecedented effort to root out the narcotics business. At the end of July Law No.2 went into effect. It prescribes the death penalty to anyone who smuggles, deals in, cultivates, or produces narcotics," the Syrian minister of the interior, Mohamed Harbat, stated. This law represents the sternest measure yet against an enterprise which reportedly involves key figures in the regime of President Hafez Assad, including some of his close relatives.

Syrian sources believe that the anti-smuggling campaign is the culmination of yet another power struggle between the 63-year old president and his younger brother, Rifaat. According to a well-in-formed Syrian source, when Rifaat got wind of the government's intention to curb smuggling, he threatened to assassinate the president. Livid, Assad ordered the security forces to lean on the smugglers, regardless of family connections.

A bloody gun battle in the president's home town of Qurdaha between government forces and smugglers linked to Rifaat reportedly left more than a dozen people dead.

The anti-smuggling campaign has involved a wave of arrests. Among those imprisoned are Fayez Assad, son of the president's brother, Jamil. In fact, Lebanese security officials claimed that Syrian forces arrested more than 40 Syrian narcotics smugglers and growers operating in the Beqaa Valley, 11 of whom were subsequently executed.

The Lebanese role in the anti-drugs and smuggling campaign has been critical. The two countries have clearly been working in concert, with Lebanese troops - often accompanied by Syrian forces - closing a myriad of illegal ports and border crossings. "All hashish and marijuana fields have been obliterated," the Lebanese minister of health, Marwan Hamadeh, confidently declared.

Since the arrival of Syrian "peacekeeping" forces in Lebanon in 1976, Damascus has been accused of active participation in the cultivation and sale of narcotics, principally hashish and opium. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimated in 1989 that the value of the Lebanese drug trade was between $700M and $1bn - $500M of which went into Syrian hands. One DEA report estimated that between 20% and 35% of the heroin imported into the United States comes from Syrian-occupied Lebanon. The Syrian government has consistently denied it has any involvement in the drug trade whatsoever.

In a widely publicised move last summer, Syrian authorities incinerated more than six tonnes of narcotics, including hashish, heroin, cocaine, opium and assorted amphetamines.

At the time the government-controlled Damascus daily Al Baath described the move as an affirmation of Syria's "determination to oppose narcotics and prevent the use of our country as a crossing point for these murderous poisons". The paper also described it as proof of Syria's "effective contribution to the international campaign to halt the spread of drugs".

Despite these claims, there is little doubt that the business could not have grown to the proportions it reached without Syrian collusion. Syria's role was hinted at during the debate in the Syrian People's Assembly over Law No.2. Sallam Yassin, a Baathist representative from the southern province of Seida, said: "As everyone knows, narcotics began to arrive through several openings and a variety of channels, and openly in different areas and among groups of people, because they can come and go as they please."

One reason behind the crack-down may be the growing problem of narcotics abuse in Syria itself. During the debate over the law the interior minister said that according to his figures there are only about nine drug abusers for every 100,000 people - or a total of only 1,350 in the entire country, but he stressed that the real number is probably far greater.

The problem is reportedly greatest among unemployed youth. Many of the children of the well-to-do, with lots of time and money on their hands, are also believed to be drug users.

Drugs were reportedly behind the murder of a young instructor at the University of Aleppo's School of Dentistry earlier this year. Police found the man with his throat slit from ear to ear, and his supplies of anaesthetics ransacked.

Three university students, two men and one woman, were later arrested and charged with murder. Whatever the motivations behind the anti-drugs campaign, the aggressive stance adopted by Damascus seems to spell an end to the wild and easy ways of the last decade and a half.
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Title Annotation:Syria trying to assert trade of drugs such as hashish
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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