Turkey's Operation Albatross was introduced as one of country's first international counter-narcotics operations in years, but it is apparently much more than that, as new intelligence reports reveal. Intelligence sources say the recent drug trafficking operation, seized in international waters, is a sign of the Syrian regime turning a blind eye to drug trafficking; even actively supporting it, as well as a change of course for drug shipments to Europe. Intelligence reports also reveal that the Mediterranean Sea -along with Russia, Damascus' close ally in the ongoing Syrian conflict- is the new route for trafficking drugs out of Syria.
On Jan. 5, security forces stormed a Bolivian-flagged ship off the coast of Libya's Tobruk. At least 13 tons of marijuana in powdered form were discovered aboard the vessel. The ship came from Syria's Tartus port and was heading to Europe with the illegal cargo, according to Turkish authorities. Ten crew members aboard, all Syrian nationals, were detained and brought to Turkey.
Intelligence information indicating that drugs from regime-controlled parts of Syria were being shipped to Europe in return for arms supplies being sent to Syrian forces eventually led to the operation. Intelligence reports stressed that drug laboratories openly operate under the nose of regime forces, and a flourishing illegal drug sector has boosted its revenues by $4 billion annually, especially amid the state of chaos the war has brought to Syria. Moreover, drug traffickers exchange drugs for arms and small fees.
Turkey is a point of transit and sometimes the ultimate destination for drug traffickers from the Middle East, aiming to ship drugs mainly to Europe. The production of Captagon, a type of amphetamine prevalent in the region, dramatically increased, according to Turkish counter-narcotics police, who nabbed an unknown number of Syrian nationals attempting to smuggle the drugs into Turkey. Almost all Captagon seizures were in Turkish cities bordering Syria. Turkey's counter-narcotics efforts were ramped up in 2014 with the declaration of a new action plan against drugs, which helped curb smuggling, but the operations still thrive. Reinforced border security and ongoing operations against drug rings have forced smugglers from Syria to rely on other routes for transport. Consequently, Russia has become a handy helper for shipping drugs to Europe, according to intelligence reports. It is not known whether Moscow's close cooperation with the Assad regime helps bolster the drug trade, but reports show that Russia is now a preferred destination for smugglers looking for a point of entry to bring their drugs into Europe from the north. The Mediterranean Sea, whose Syrian coast is largely controlled by the Assad regime, is the second route.
Intelligence reports also reveal that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish faction concentrated in northern Syria, benefits from the drug trade. The PYD is linked to the PKK, a terrorist organization that carries out attacks across Turkey, and profits from $1.5 billion in drug trading annually, according to reports.