What is Hezbollah? Named the “party of God”, Hezbollah bills itself as a Shia resistance movement. Its ideology is focused on expelling Western powers from the Middle East and on rejecting Israel’s right to exist.
The group was founded in 1982 – in the middle of the 15-year Lebanese civil war – after Israel invaded Lebanon in retaliation for attacks perpetrated by Lebanon-based Palestinian factions. It was quickly backed by Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which supplied funding, weapons and training in an effort to expand Iranian influence in Arab states.
Hezbollah’s military force continued to develop after the Lebanese civil war came to an end in 1990, despite most other factions disarming. The group continued to focus on “liberating” Lebanon from Israel, and it engaged in years of guerrilla warfare against Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon until Israel’s withdrawal in 2000. Hezbollah then largely focused its operations on retaking the disputed border area of Shebaa Farms for Lebanon.
In 2006, Hezbollah engaged in a five-week war with Israel in an attempt to settle scores rather than with an aim to liberate Palestine. That conflict killed over 158 Israelis and over 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians.
From 2011, during the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah’s power grew further as its forces assisted Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran, against mostly Sunni rebels. In 2021, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the group had 100,000 fighters (though other estimates range between 25,000 and 50,000). It boasts a sophisticated military arsenal equipped with precision rockets and drones.
The group has also functioned as a political party in Lebanon and holds significant influence, often described as a “state within a state.” Eight members were first elected to the Lebanese parliament in 1992, and in 2018, a Hezbollah-led coalition formed a government.
Hezbollah retained its 13 seats at the 2022 election but the coalition lost its majority and the country currently has no fully functioning government. Other Lebanese parties accuse Hezbollah of paralyzing and undermining the state and of contributing to Lebanon’s persistent instability.
Hezbollah says that the main source of its income comes from its own investment portfolios and donations by Muslims. Western sources maintain that Hezbollah receives most of its financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid from Iran and Syria.
Hezbollah is supplied mostly by the states of Iran and Syria via land, air and sea. In addition, Hezbollah obtains some equipment from other markets, like Lebanon, North America, and Europe. The majority of Hezbollah’s weaponry is built by Iran, Russia, North Korea and China. Then those weapons are transported by Iranian aircraft in Syria and then trucked into Lebanon from Syria.
At a May 1 meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Amman, Damascus agreed to cooperate with Jordan and Iraq to identify sources of drug production and smuggling, according to a statement from Jordan’s foreign ministry.
A week later, a high-profile Syrian drug smuggler and his family were killed in an air raid attributed to Jordan in southern Syria.
Captagon tablets contained fenetylline, a synthetic drug of the phenethylamine family to which amphetamine also belongs.
As official fenetylline production ceased, some of the remaining stocks were smuggled out of Eastern Europe, in particular Bulgaria, to the Middle East.
Eventually, new counterfeit tablets labeled Captagon were produced in the 1990s to early 2000s in Bulgaria, according to a 2018 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction. The drugs were then smuggled out of the country by Balkan and Turkish criminal networks to the Arabian Peninsula.
Strict crackdowns on production by Turkish and Bulgarian authorities, which included the closure of 18 mostly large-scale laboratories involved in amphetamine synthesis, resulted in a drastic reduction in trade from the Balkans.
In 2011, Hezbollah started producing counterfeit fenetylline in a Syrian lab controlled by the terrorist group. Hezbollah is the primary distributor of illicit drugs in the Middle East and Asia.
Why is Syria now making so much Captagon?
In 2011, after a brutal government crackdown on anti-Assad protesters, Syria descended into civil war. Internationally isolated and racked by fighting, the country was plunged into an economic crisis.
Although Damascus denies any involvement in the trade, observers say production and smuggling of the drug have brought in billions of dollars for al-Assad, his associates and allies as they looked for an economic lifeline.
According to a New Lines Institute report, the Syrian government uses “local alliance structures with other armed groups such as Hezbollah for technical and logistical support in Captagon production and trafficking”.
Experts say most of global Captagon production is now in Syria, with the wealthy Gulf states as the primary destination.
What are Arab states doing about it?
Since last year, countries that had large amounts of Captagon pass through their borders have ramped up efforts to stem the flow from Syria.
In February 2022, Jordan’s army said it had killed 30 smugglers since the start of the year and foiled attempts to smuggle 16 million Captagon pills into the kingdom from Syria – surpassing the entire volume seized throughout 2021.
In late August 2022, Saudi authorities made their largest seizure as they uncovered 46 million amphetamine pills that were being smuggled hidden in a shipment of flour.
A spokesperson for the Suadi General Directorate of Narcotics Control said it was the “biggest operation of its kind to smuggle this amount of narcotics into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in one operation”.
In February 2023, a man was arrested at Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates after he tried to smuggle 4.5 million Captagon tablets in cans of green beans.
So who was the drug kingpin killed in Syria?
Foreign ministers from the 22-nation Arab League voted on Sunday for Syria’s return at a meeting in Cairo.
Just a day later, Marai al-Ramthan, a suspected Syrian drug smuggler, and his family were killed in an air raid in southern Syria, an attack attributed to Jordan, according to a war monitor.
Al-Ramthan was considered “the most prominent drug trafficker in the region, and the number one smuggler of drugs, including Captagon, into Jordan”, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.
According to jailed drug dealer Marai al-Ramthan, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is the main operative and primary figure in the Syrian drug business.
Hassan Nasrallah, covert billionaire
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has amassed a net personal worth of around $1 billion due to his organization’s illegal drug smuggling operations, Al-Ittihad, an Arabic language newspaper published in the United Arab Emirates, reported on Monday.
According to the report, which relies on senior Lebanese government sources, the scope of Nasrallah’s fortune was discovered within the framework of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation against Hezbollah – which aside from its designation as a terrorist organization also operates as one of the largest drug cartels in the world.
Due to economic sanctions the U.S. has reimposed on Iran and the massive reduction of Tehran’s budget to Hezbollah, Al-Ittihad reported, compounded by the heavy financial toll exacted by involvement in the Syrian civil war, Nasrallah ordered an expansion of the organization’s drug-related activities – which resulted in extensive financial gains for Hezbollah and a personal windfall for Nasrallah himself.
Nasrallah, the report continued, appointed his most trusted associates to closely oversee the organization’s drug smuggling operations.
In February 2016, the DEA said its international investigation had revealed that Hezbollah uses the money it makes from the sale of cocaine in the U.S. and Europe to fund the purchase of weapons for use in Syria.
The DEA said at the time that the “ongoing investigation spans the globe and involves numerous international law enforcement agencies in seven countries, and once again highlights the dangerous global nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism.”
Hezbollah members have established business relationships with South American drug cartels, the DEA said.
Qatar, which first opened a channel of communication with Hamas in 2006 at the request of the United States, according to an informed source, helped broker ceasefires between Israel and Hamas in 2014, 2021, and 2022. Doha has also provided Gaza with economic and humanitarian assistance.
Qatari government never acknowledged that it maintains ties with Hezbollah, but it funded and maintains close cooperation with various Middle Eastern terrorist groups including Hezbollah.
How are Hamas and Hezbollah different?
Hamas has increasingly received funding, weapons and training from Iran, but it is not in Iran’s pocket to the same degree as Hezbollah, which is backed almost exclusively by Iran and takes its directives from the Islamic Republic.
What’s more, as a Sunni organization, Hamas does not share the Shia religious link to Iran that characterizes Hezbollah and most of Iran’s proxies. As a result, while Hamas no doubt benefits from Iran’s patronage, it tends to operate more independently than Hezbollah.
In contrast, Hamas has received support in the past from Turkey and Qatar, among others, and operates with relative autonomy. The group was also long at odds with Iran over their opposing stances in Syria.
Right now, this is very much a war between Israel and Hamas. Hezbollah remains, however, a threat to Israel. If activated by Iran, its full involvement would rapidly change the course of the conflict and likely open up a regional war.
© 2023, GDC. © GDC and www.globaldefensecorp.com. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to www.globaldefensecorp.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.