Drugs, Shi‘a, and the Struggle for Southern Syria

Moran Levanoni analyzes the question of whether the Syrian regime, partially in cooperation with Hezbollah, is involved in narcotics trafficking in rebel-controlled southern Syria, as an element of its overall campaign against the rebels.

תמונת סוחר הסמים נוח זעיתר המבקר בחזית הזבדאני בחברת אנשי חזבאללה, שהופצה בחשבונו האישי בפייסבוק
Picture of drug dealer Nouh Zeitar visiting the front in Zabadani with members of Hezbollah, shared on his personal Facebook page

The boundary between the forces of the Syrian regime and the rebels in the Hauran region in southern Syria, which includes the cities of Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda, has remained largely unchanged for the last three years, and is anchored in an agreement to prevent escalation that parties signed last November in the presence of the Jordanians, the Americans and the Russians. The absence of a central government in the rebel-controlled areas, also known as the “liberated lands,” led to anarchy in the region. This allowed multiple armed militias to infiltrate the area and operate alongside Hezbollah cells. One of the most conspicuous results is widespread drug trafficking, which is largely attributed to Hezbollah, although it is possible that the Syrian regime is also involved. The question is whether or not this is a deliberate campaign aimed at controlling the young Syrians in the region by supplying drugs.

The direct smuggling lines between the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon and Syria have enabled Hezbollah, which is involved in the fighting in Syria, to leverage its drug trafficking capabilities to create extensive commercial ties with leading local merchants such as Nouh Zeitar, a member of the large Zeitar clan from the Beqaa Valley, who specializes in growing and exporting drugs.[1] He is a well-known drug dealer and the Lebanese police have issued several warrants for his arrest. Zetiar is also considered a social media personality, and maintains at least five Facebook pages, including the Admirers of Nouh Zeitar page, with 4500 members, and the Nouh Abou Ali page with 57,000 followers.[2] The content published using his personal account includes statements supporting Hezbollah, pictures of the organization’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, and pictures showing Zeitar with armed fighters near the front in Zabadani, a town in south-western Syria near the Lebanese border (see photo).[3] In the region’s new reality, a drug dealer has become a legitimate personality and a Shi’i patriot.

The rebels, for their part, are working to stamp out the distribution of drugs in the areas under their control. Last September, forces from the Free Syrian Army, a rebel faction belonging to the moderate opposition, carried out a large-scale operation in the environs of Daraa, as part of an attempt to lay their hands on drug dealers. During the operation, 15 suspects were arrested for trading and dealing in drugs. According to law enforcement agencies, a considerable portion of the drugs sold in Daraa come from Suwayda, an area controlled of the Syrian regime and with a Hezbollah presence, where local Druze and Bedouin tribes have traditionally engaged in trafficking and in drug and weapons smuggling.[4]

In an article entitled, “Drugs: Another Front in Free Daraa, Looking for the Government and Hezbollah Militia,” published on the Zaman al-Wazel website last January, Free Syrian Army spokesman Abu Bakr al-Hassan said: “Supplying drugs is part of the Syrian regime’s plan to harm the younger generation in the south.”[5] He further claimed that investigation of the traffickers who were caught bringing truckloads of drugs from Lebanon to the area under the responsibility of the Free Syrian Army revealed that they were able to pass through the security checkpoints maintained by the Syrian army because Assad’s soldiers facilitated their passage. Another media personality, Jawad Abu Hamza, reported on the capture of a large cell of drug dealers from the Suwayda region, and claimed that the region is a center for distributing drugs throughout southern Syria, with a significant portion of the goods destined for smuggling into neighboring Jordan.

Apparently, Abu Bakr’s remarks were not baseless, as evident in the killing of Ahmad Jaafar Abu Yassin, a resident of the Shi‘i village of Suwayda. Jaafar, who was known as a significant drug dealer, fled together with other families belonging to the Shi‘i minority from the village Busra al-Sham, following its conquest by Free Syrian Army ‎fighters in 2013. He settled on a sheep farm near Suwayda together with – his neighbors claim – a group of individuals and families he had convinced to convert to Shi‘ism.  On the morning of March 26, 2018,  Jaafar’s body was found lying in Mashnaka Square in the heart of Suwayda. Jaafar was suspected of involvement in explosions on September 4, 2015 that caused the death of Sheikh Wahid Bilous, the leader of the Druze militia ‘Men of Dignity’[BM1] , which opposes the Assad regime. Indeed, shortly after the murder, a video clip appeared on the Facebook page of the Sheikh Honor Forces[6] taking responsibility for the attack.[7] The next day, a local news network broadcast a video in which Jaafar admitted that he had been involved in the assassination of Bilous, together with Hezbollah operatives and Wafik Nasser, the head of military intelligence in Suwayda.[8] From his comments, it emerges that he forged contacts with the Iranian embassy, Hezbollah, and Wafik Nasser, and became involved in the drug business through them. He used the drugs to attract Druze young people to Shi‘ism. Other publications claimed that Jaafar had purchased, at the behest of the Iranian embassy, real estate in order to settle the Shi‘a, and had previously been arrested for possession of a large quantity of Captagon tablets. After his arrest, he was transferred to the Syrian security forces but released under strange circumstances. Another source told Orient Net that Jaafar was also in contact with elements close to the Syrian regime and President Bashar Assad.[9]

In the meantime, Syrian young people are watching a new television series released during Ramadan, al-Haybeh, which is expected to capture their hearts. It tells the tale of a charming, generous and noble drug dealer named Jabal Sheikh Jabal (played by Taim Hasan) who lives in a village on the Lebanese-Syrian border and his beloved Alia (Nadine Naseeb Najim).[10] Upon the series’ release, a Facebook page called “Sheikh Al-Jabel is Nouh Zeitar” was launched.[11]

Whether or not the Syrian regime, through Hezbollah, is conducting a deliberate campaign in southern Syria, the very fact that the region is flooded with addictive substances has ramifications. In addition to the accumulated profits that are used to finance the fighting, drug users become dependent on suppliers, they develops apathy and a lack of motivation among the opposing fighters, and finally, the conversion of addicts to Shi’i Islam has political significance. As a whole, social and media networks, intentionally or unintentionally, seem to be legitimizing drug trafficking by glorifying the images of drug dealers, thus creating an additional influence on young Syrians.

[1] Moran Levanoni, “Captagon and Syria's Drug Economy,” Iqtisadi, vol. 5, no. 12, (December 2015). 

[2] See, for example: ,عشاق نوح زعيتر ابو علي الغالي Facebook.com. Last accessed  4 July 2018; @JadMahdi2, Facebook. Last accessed 4 July 2018; @NouhZeaiter1, Facebook.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[3] See: @JadMahdi2, Facebook, 5 December 2017.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.  

[4] “The Opposition pursues drug dealers in Daraa,” Enab Baladi, 14 September 2017. Last accessed 4 July 2018.  

[5] Mohammed Al-Hammadi, “Drugs: Another Front in Free Daraa, Looking for the Government and Hezbollah Militia,” Zaman al-Wazel, 29 January 2018. Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[6] @alkaramaa.99, Facebook.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[7] @Suwayda24, Facebook, 13 June 2018. Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[8] Itath Al-Jabsl, “The biggest drug trafficker killed in Suwayda after being abducted,” Horrya Press, 26 March 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[9] Rami Zain El Din, “Managed by Wafik Nasser: Revealing the most dangerous network to spread Shi’ism in Suwayda.” Orient Net, 12 July 2015. Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[10] The first episode of the series can be viewed here.   Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[11] @firasalhamzawi19774, Facebook.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.