Syria now a gateway for drugs and mercenaries to Libya

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Monday, 26 April 2021 12:37

Libyan fighters in the east in 2015 (pictured). Mohamed Ben Khalifa/AP/SIPA

There have been increased flights between Syria and Libya in recent months. This travel corridor, which primarily facilitates the transport of Syrian mercenaries, is growing proof of the alignment between Russian and Emirati interests in Libya.

An aspect of the Libyan conflict that is not well known is Khalifa Haftar’s involvement in Damascus. However, when it comes to foreign interference, the connections between Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and the eastern general are quite obvious.

Since the beginning of April, the Syrian company Cham Wings has made no less than nine round trips between Damascus and Benghazi, the last of which took place on 19 April. This private airline, which is under US and EU sanctions, is owned by businessman Rami Maklhouf, Assad’s cousin. This tycoon, who has been operating in the oil, banking and construction sectors, has been in the Assad clan’s bad books since June.

Mercenaries and drugs in transit

Relations between Damascus and Latakia (on the Syrian coast) and Benghazi began in 2018. Some of these flights brought Syrian mercenaries to fight as part of General Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

It is estimated that nearly 2,000 Syrian mercenaries are currently taking part in the conflict alongside him. According to an expert on the Libyan conflict: “The recruitment of these mercenaries is led by Russia and financed in part by money paid by the United Arab Emirates, allies of Khalifa Haftar.” For its part, Ankara has recruited Syrian fighters for the Tripoli government.

But the numerous flights between the two countries could also serve as a drug trafficking network. The Syrian journalist and analyst Asaad Hanna tells us: “Syria has become the biggest centre for drugs. [The] Syrian government is using it to fund their operations…as the situation in Libya is messed up, it’s a perfect market to distribute and sell drugs there.”

In April 2020, Egyptian authorities seized four tonnes of hashish in the port of Port Said from a cargo ship bound for Libya from Latakia. It was carrying milk belonging to the Milkman company, owned by Rami Makhlouf. Assad’s cousin has denied being involved in any way.

The media has regularly been reporting, since the 1980s and the Lebanon war, how the Assad clan participates in trafficking. According to Hanna, Maher al-Assad, Assad’s younger brother and head of the Syrian army’s 4th armoured division, is one of the main organisers of this drug trafficking.

“A lot of drug shipment[s] left from centres [that] were under his control in southern Syria. In addition, he is in charge of border crossings with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.” In July 2020, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an organisation of investigative journalists, uncovered that Samer Kamel Assad, another cousin of the Syrian president, runs a captagon [a psychostimulant drug popular across the Arabian peninsula, known as fenethylline, a mix of amphetamine and theophyllin] manufacturing plant.

Diplomatic ties

On the diplomatic front, the dissident authorities in Benghazi decided to join forces with Assad’s government in March 2020. An agreement was signed to renew diplomatic relations and reopen the Libyan embassy in Damascus, which had been closed since 2012. However, this alliance was the result of a broader strategy, led by Russia.

Thomas Pierret, a specialist on Syria and a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), reiterates that: “Bashar al-Assad does not have many available options. He has sympathy for Haftar because he is an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey, but he has no obvious interest in getting involved in the Libyan conflict.”

However, Syria, which was suspended from the Arab League when its 2011 revolution was crushed, is seeking to be reinstated within the Arab world.

Moscow is one of the main actors involved in a particular kind of convergence of struggles. Russia remains the principal architect of the link between Benghazi and Damascus, which President Vladimir Putin supports militarily against Syrian rebel opponents that are backed by Turkish forces. While in Libya, Moscow supported Haftar in his offensive against the previous Turkish-backed Libyan government (the GNA).

The Russian private military company Wagner has been operating in Libya since May 2020. To support Haftar’s forces, Wagner has recruited, according to the UN panel of experts’ report, nearly 2,000 Syrian fighters. Furthermore, the paramilitary firm is still present in the city of Sirte, despite repeated requests from the UN to withdraw these foreign forces. Some of Wagner’s men are also deployed in Fezzan.

Abu-Dhabi-Benghazi axis

These links between Damascus and Benghazi are also a result of the close ties that Abu Dhabi has been maintaining with Assad’s regime since 2018. In March of that same year, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus.

Since then, it has gradually been working to rehabilitate the Syrian president on the international scene. “Abu Dhabi has launched a precise policy: to cultivate a friendship with Russia in order to defend anti-Muslim Brotherhood authoritarianism and gradually work towards rehabilitating Bashar al-Assad within the Arab League,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Global Initiative and a specialist on Libya.

Although Abu Dhabi supported the opposition at the beginning of the Arab Spring, it recently shifted its position and has been cooperating with Assad since 2108. The UAE no longer hides its support for the Syrian government. On 8 April, it sent a medical aid plane to Damascus to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Mohammed Ben Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, is fighting to counteract the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey in Syria and Libya. According to Harchaoui, “Mohammed Ben Zayed’s ideological motivation is of immense importance. In Abu Dhabi’s eyes, it is imperative to act as a bulwark against Recep Tayyip Erdogan and to protect strict conservative authoritarianism. Thus, helping Bashar al-Assad and Haftar is part of the same reasoning. It is necessary to form a common front.”

Withdrawal of mercenaries

Ensuring the departure of foreign mercenaries from Libya has become crucial in order to maintain the stability of the ceasefire. Furthermore, the US and Europe have been exerting more and more pressure to make sure that this is accomplished quickly.

In Tripoli, prime minister Abdelhamid al-Dabaiba is maintaining a balancing act between the Turkish and Russian camps. He met with Prince Zayed on 9 April, while on a foreign tour, and discussed strengthening their respective countries’ cooperation. He also held talks in Russia on 15 April with his counterpart Mikhail Mishoustine and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Two days earlier, Dabaiba reaffirmed the legality of the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreements signed in 2019 in Ankara with the previous government.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options