Marijuana Cultivation Financing Syrian Rebels

In Jabal al-Zawiya, near Idlib
In Jabal al-Zawiya, near Idlib
Omar Abdullah

Four years into Syria's conflict, cannabis has become an unlikely key source of financing for a number of groups in the opposition-held north. It's used mostly to buy weapons.

Jabal al-Zawiya in the province of Idlib is a mountainous area close to the Turkish border. Once famous for growing olives, it is now used to grow pot. Farmers here say the plant grows quickly, and yields higher revenues than olives.

Most villages in Idlib province are living off the spoils of goods smuggled between Syria and Turkey, and many basic commodities available for purchase here now come from Turkey, too.

"We don't have jobs anymore," says Ahmad, a 31-year-old marijuana farmer from the town of Maarret al-Numan. "We have no land, no trade, nothing. If it wasn't for smuggling, we'd starve to death." He adds that many of his fellow villagers have already started growing cannabis in a bid for financial survival.

Ahmad and his family once harvested olives; they shifted to growing cannabis one year ago, when other sources of income ran dry. But now he says that Jabhat al-Nusra and allied armed rebel factions are raiding farms like his, arresting anyone who grows hash because they believe that growing a drug like weed is forbidden by Islamic law.

To defend themselves, farmers say they pay local fighters from more moderate groups to protect their farms and then transport the crop into Turkey, through a series of well-concealed smuggling routes. The success of the trade has been a lucrative boost to those brigades, who have come to specialize in smuggling cannabis.

Farming in fear

Residents of Harim, another Idlib town, are too scared to name the extremist faction that they say destroyed 20 tons of cannabis in the outskirts of the town last month.

Abu Riyadh, a farmer from the Haff Sarja village who now grows cannabis on half of his land, says that the umbrella group Jabhat Thowar Souria unofficially oversees all marijuana growing in the province, skimming from its profits. He says its fighters protect farms and convoys that smuggle the cannabis into Turkey, then charge farmers up to 60 percent of the profits.

"If we sell it all, the profit would be about 7 million Syrian Pounds $40,000 per month," says Abu Riyadh. "The fighters would take around 4 million."

He says that even if a smuggling mission is unsuccessful, the Front still forces farmers to pay the fee.

One Front fighter who protects Abu Riyadh's farm says that as fees climb, some villagers are protecting their farms themselves, without paying for help from his brigade. He adds that fighters hired individually to cover a farm can make as much as $500 per month, while when a group is hired, the money goes to the Front's leaders, who distribute it as they see fit.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!