Syrians Cash In on Drug Trade in Lebanon’s Notorious Bekaa Valley : Narcotics: Some suggest that the money trail reaches all the way to Damascus.
American military officers on the rise have sought out assignments in Vietnam or the Persian Gulf, places where they could make a reputation. For Syrian commanders, it’s Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a place to make a bundle.
Once the breadbasket of Lebanon, the Bekaa is today perhaps the Middle East’s most compact center of dirty, dangerous business. Radical Turkish and Armenian terrorists train there. Pro-Iranian kidnapers caged the Western hostages in valley towns. And this spring, colorful opium poppies will fill the fields, ready for harvest, conversion to heroin and a flight from Beirut to some American or European airport.
All under the eyes of the Syrian army.
“They control the whole valley. Nothing moves that they don’t know about,” said a Western intelligence official. “If you’re going to be in the Syrian army, the Bekaa’s the place to be.” The reward is a piece of the action.
Like occupying forces anywhere, including the Allies in Europe after World War II, the Syrians in the Bekaa have been tempted by the profits of smuggling, racketeering and, in this case, heroin and hashish production taking place on their turf. Over 15 years, so many have given in to temptation that payoffs have become an almost regular part of army pay, and some officers are participating directly in the drug trade, Western officials say.
“We have good information that Syrian military personnel have taken an active hand in the marketing of hashish and opium for personal gain,” said a Western source in Damascus. The intelligence official estimated that a Syrian officer could pocket at least 10 times his annual pay, clearing about $20,000 to $30,000 a year, by facilitating the raising and shipping of narcotics in the Bekaa.
Western diplomats say it is not the army as an institution that is dirty, but rather some individual officers. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the money trail reaches high levels of the Syrian command in Beirut and perhaps in Damascus as well. Washington has placed the problem at the level of terrorism and human rights violations, counting it another impediment to improved relations with the government of President Hafez Assad.
With narcotics in the Bekaa, the Syrian leader faces a double-edged sword. Diplomatic pressure was apparently sufficient for him to order the burning of hashish fields last fall around Baalbek, the main city in the valley. But a year ago, according to diplomatic sources in Damascus, Assad’s decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia as part of the U.S.-led coalition led to some resistance among officers reluctant to surrender their profitable postings in Lebanon.
Western sources say officers are rotated in and out of Syrian units in Lebanon, spreading the potential benefits around the military on which Assad’s regime is heavily dependent. Whatever the degree of Syrian involvement, however, no important supplies of drugs are being sent to Syria itself. Virtually lawless during the 15-year civil war, Lebanon has an estimated 70,000 drug addicts.
But drugs are not a problem in Syria, where they are strictly forbidden and a smothering network of secret police has kept them out.
The Syrian army moved into Lebanon in 1976, in the second year of the civil war, ostensibly under an Arab League invitation to put down the violence. Now about 40,000 men strong, the Syrian force controls Beirut and three-fourths of the rest of Lebanon, all except the far south and the Christian heartland north of the capital. An estimated 30,000 Syrian soldiers are stationed in the Bekaa, a flat, fertile groove similar to California’s Central Valley.
The valley is policed by Syrian military intelligence units, with headquarters in Beirut. The newly restructured Lebanese government has dispatched a small force of policemen to work with the Syrians. No Syrian regular police units are involved, according to the Western sources.
The major contraband is drugs, but consumer and industrial products also move through the Bekaa. Assad’s primarily state-run economy--only agriculture and small businesses have been left in private hands--is notorious for shortages. But unlike the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe under Moscow’s tutelage, the Syrians always had a secure, second source of supplies--Lebanon.
Even during the civil war, free-wheeling, free-enterprise Lebanese merchants were able to find and deliver the goods.
The rule in Damascus is to go to a pharmacy or shop, place your order and wait three days. Out of a storeroom, over the mountains, across the valley, the shipment will arrive. The Damascene customer is happy, the Beirut merchant gets his profit and, at the border, a Syrian officer has gotten a cut, according to the Western sources.
In the West it’s considered corruption, and here in the Middle East, too. But low-level payoffs, at least at remote border posts, are regarded as supplemental government pay. Within Syria itself, businessmen expect to take on a silent, connected partner, usually uniformed, who clears away the bureaucratic underbrush. “Sponsors, they call them,” explained a Western diplomat.
But narcotics is a far different game. During the civil war, Lebanese militias of all political stripes were taxing the opium and hashish producers to raise money for weapons. Some were more directly involved. They also provided safe passage out of the ports that were then under their control.
The escalating amounts of money involved led Christian and Muslim farmers in the Bekaa to switch over from their traditional hashish crops to opium. Lebanon remains the world’s largest producer of hashish and hashish oil, but now is a heroin producer as well. An estimated seven metric tons of heroin is leaving the country annually, a fraction of the exports of the Southeast Asian producers but still an estimated billion-dollar or more business.
The poppies are grown and cut and the opium refined to heroin powder right in the valley, in an estimated 30 or more mobile laboratories staffed by French- and Turkish-trained Lebanese chemists. (There are also some cocaine labs, which refine an imported cocaine base for distribution in Beirut, where the fashionable crowd prefers the South American powder or a hashish pipe to heroin.)
The Western intelligence official said the farmers and the big family clans that refine and move the heroin receive regular visits from Syrian military officers involved in the racket--"usually captains"-- who assess and tax the stuff.
According to the official, the Syrians themselves never touch the drugs but use their security control to allow unhindered passage to the port of departure, usually out of Beirut airport, where the Syrians are not in charge but retain influence. Syrian army officers “profit from the trade and protect it,” according to a 1990 State Department report.
Some heroin leaves the country across the Israeli border, Western narcotics agents say, and hashish, a heavier load, is often shipped out of the port of Al Mina, north of the Lebanese city of Tripoli.
The Syrian tax placed on the crop in the valley presumably is split among involved officers, the intelligence agent said, but how the split works and how high the proceeds go is not known.
None of the Western sources suggested that Syrian officers have full control of Lebanon’s drug trade, and last fall’s destruction of the hashish fields around Baalbek indicated that Damascus wanted a reduction of the existing involvement.
Not everyone was impressed with the experiment, however. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who commanded a powerful militia during the civil war, called the hashish-eradication campaign “theatrical.”
He accused top officials of the Damascus-supported Lebanese government of profiting from the traffic and said the Beirut regime would not move to stop it.