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US slaps sanctions on Syria's Assad's cousins over captagon drug

The captagon trade cuts across all sides in the Syrian civil war, with the drug now the country's biggest export
— Washington (AFP)

The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on two cousins of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the trafficking of the stimulant drug captagon, a growing export for the state, which is quickly normalizing ties in the region.

An AFP investigation in November found that Syria has become a narco state with the $10 billion industry in captagon dwarfing all other exports and funding both Assad and many of his enemies.

The United States, in coordination with Britain, announced it was imposing sanctions on two of the president's cousins, Samer Kamal al-Assad and Wassem Badi al-Assad over the drug trade.

Samer Kamal al-Assad owns a factory in the coastal city of Latakia that produced 84 million captagon pills in 2020, the US Treasury Department said.

"Syria has become a global leader in the production of highly addictive captagon, much of which is trafficked through Lebanon," said Andrea Gacki, the senior Treasury official handling sanctions.

"With our allies, we will hold accountable those who support Bashar al-Assad's regime with illicit drug revenue and other financial means that enable the regime's continued repression of the Syrian people," she said in a statement.

Others targeted in the sanctions include Nouh Zaitar, Lebanon's most famous drug lord who is on the run from authorities, and Hassan Dekko, a Lebanese-Syrian drug kingpin with high-level connections in both countries.

Under the Treasury action, the United States will block any assets on US soil held by the alleged drug traffickers and will make transactions with them a crime.

Saudi Arabia has become by far the largest market for captagon, an amphetamine derived from a once-legal treatment for narcolepsy and attention disorder, with the inexpensive drug drawing both the wealthy party set and poor laborers in an Islamic country where alcohol is taboo.

The action by the United States comes as its pleas to other nations not to normalize relations with Assad are increasingly ignored.

Assad in March paid his second visit in as many years to the United Arab Emirates, and neighboring Turkey, long a main backer of rebels, has opened to the Damascus government.

Assad, helped by Russian airpower, has largely restored control over Syria after the conflict that has killed half a million people, displaced half the country's pre-war population and saw the rise of the Islamic State extremist group.

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