Sunday, 28 May 2023 07:06 GMT

Drugs And Politics Keep Syrian Exports Out Of Iraq

(MENAFN- Asia Times) Syrian freight trucks containing everything from food to clothes destined for Iraq are languishing at al-Qaim border crossing despite a deal having been reached to settle a long-running dispute more than two months ago.

Iraqi and Syrian officials began talks to fully reopen the crossing in 2021, finally reaching an agreement on January 5 this year to allow Syrian freight trucks to enter Iraq through al-Qaim. The full opening of the crossing was supposed to follow in a matter of days, yet nothing changed.

The delay in implementing the deal should not come as a shock. While handshakes were extended and agreements were signed between high-level state officials, influential forces – both foreign and domestic – including non-state actors, have worked in the shadows to prevent the opening out of their own self-interests, as well as fear of increased drug smuggling.

In February 2022, syrian state newspaper tishreen revealed that the Iraqi prime minister at the time, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, had ordered Syrian trucks carrying freight to be allowed to enter the country. This order, however, was not implemented either.

Iraq originally closed its only active border crossing with Syria to Syrian freight trucks at the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with authorities citing security and health concerns. The Syrian government responded with similar measures on Iraqi trucks in a tit-for-tat move.

However, when the Syrian government lifted restrictions on iraqi trucks in 2021, Iraqi authorities did not reciprocate. Since then, Syrian officials have been trying to persuade the Iraqi government to allow Syrian trucks to enter the country.

Notably, the Iraqi authorities allow trucks coming from other neighboring countries , namely Jordan and Iran, to enter without restriction, which shows that the ban is no longer about Covid-related concerns.

As a result of the restrictions, truck owners moving goods from Syria to Iraq must unload freight from their trucks only to have it reloaded on to Iraqi trucks at the border crossings.

Muhammad Riyad al-Sairafi , head of the Syrian International Freight Forwarding Association, played down the challenges on February 1, while blaming the delay on setting up a special mechanism with Baghdad to help issue multiple-entry visas to Syrian truck drivers.

However, this never came to fruition.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Kishore, chairman of a different but similarly named organization, the Syrian Federation of International Freight Forwarders, painted a different, and likely more accurate, picture two weeks before Sairafi's comments. The agreement, according to kishore , has not been implemented over the objections of“influential Iraqi non-state actors.”

Those entities allegedly want the price of Syrian goods to remain inflated due to the supply shortage. If Syrian products flooded the market again, produce from Iran and Iraq would face competition, driving their prices down.

Lowering shipment costs to Iraq is expected to double syria's total exports and provide a much-needed boost to the Syrian economy. Currently, the cost of shipping a loaded truck from Syria to Iraq is between US$6,000 and $7,000. In comparison, a similar freight truck entering from turkey costs around $2,200.

The difference in costs goes to the companies responsible for transferring goods to Iraqi trucks before crossing the border at al-Qaim. Obviously, these companies have much to lose if the restrictions were to loosen.

But they are not the only ones opposing lifting the ban. There are fears that easing restrictions would increase the scale of drugs trafficked from Syria. An Iraqi government official said those concerns were shared by the US and Arab Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

Syria is reportedly the world's largest producer of the amphetamine fenethylline , usually branded captagon . Income from the drug dwarfs that of Syria's legal exports, with estimates saying the industry was worth $5.7 billion in 2021 and could be as high as $10 billion a year .

The main market for Captagon is Saudi Arabia, followed by other Middle Eastern countries. Any easing of restrictions to trucks leaving Syria would likely increase the flow of drugs to and through Iraq.

The Iraqi government source also highlighted that some state-backed militias in Iraq, known as Popular Mobilization Units, were also against lifting the ban – albeit for completely different motives.

The militias are reportedly controlling the flow of drugs into Iraq. Hence their concern is that lifting the ban may challenge their monopoly over the trade by allowing others to smuggle drugs without paying dues.

The increased normalization of ties between Arab countries and the Syrian regime after the devastating earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey might help ease the way for the border agreement finally to be implemented.

But longer-term, real change in freeing up trade between Syria and its neighbors would likely be driven by the potential economic benefits that could come from bringing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab fold.

Unfortunately, the implementation of the border agreement will not be the result of reining in non-state actors benefiting from the current arrangement. On the contrary, it could allow them to find new ways to expand their gains by enabling Syria's illicit drug trade to grow exponentially and pose an increasing health and security risk to Iraq, the region, and beyond.

This article was provided by syndication bureau , which holds copyright.

Follow Haid Haid on Twitter @HaidHaid22.


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