The civil war and the boycott of Assad wiped out the Syrian economy, leading to the flourishing of home laboratories and factories for the production of the drug Captagon. With active support from the administration, assistance from Hezbollah and enthusiastic customers such as ISIS fighters, the Captagon has become the largest export industry in the country – one that keeps it alive, but also complicates it with all the neighbors in the region. Now that Assad is trying to regain global legitimacy and money to rehabilitate the country, will he agree to eliminate an industry that rolls in at least $ 3.5 billion a year?
The stimulant drug Captagon has been dubbed “the cocaine of the poor.” It creates a sense of euphoria, reduces the need for hours of sleep, reduces appetite and makes the user energetic. In the West, its use was banned as early as 1980, but in Islamic countries, where alcohol is forbidden, it remains popular. And in recent years, under the auspices of the Civil War, Syria has become a captive production power that floods the entire world with it. So much so that this illegal industry has become the most important industry in the country. Today, almost the entire Syrian economy is founded on it, and it fortifies the power of President Bashar al-Assad – and at the same time complicates it with all its neighbors in the region.
Captagon, or scientifically known as phenethylline hydrochloride, was first synthesized in the 1960s as a drug to treat hyperactivity, narcolepsy, and depression. Over time, however, it has been found that it is very addictive and its frequent consumption causes damage to muscles, including the heart muscle, and coordination abilities. Its high doses may even provoke paranoia, psychosis and schizophrenia.
After the use of the Captagon was banned, organized crime gangs began to produce it, mainly in Turkey and Bulgaria. It gained popularity among students, athletes, truck drivers who had to stay alert on the road for many hours and young people who wanted to lose weight. But in the last decade it has become particularly trendy among soldiers: members of the armed militias in Syria, both in regime and opposition areas, and ISIS fighters who have consumed it in quantities as an incentive to go on missions. So much so that Captagon has become popular among the fighters of the murderous organization, which in the area is called “ISIS’s drug.”
The state of the Syrian economy has never been bright, and on the eve of the Civil War its exports amounted to only about $ 9 billion, mainly due to exports of oil and textiles (for comparison, Israeli exports in 2010 stood at $ 51 billion, and have since almost tripled ). But even this little was crushed by the war: the costs of fighting on the one hand and the stifling international sanctions on the other led to an almost complete paralysis of all sectors of the economy. The closure of borders with neighboring Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, which were important export markets, landed another severe blow on the Syrian economy. Under these conditions, Syria’s turn to the drug industry was inevitable.
The Captagon plants have existed in Syria for a long time, but it was not until 2018, when the Assad regime was able to regain control of most parts of the country, that it became a global manufacturing powerhouse of the drug. This happened because the control of the Syrian army and the militias that support it in the main transportation arteries in the country and the border crossings facilitated the possibilities of the drug moving to other areas in the Middle East.
The main smuggling target of the Syrians is the Gulf states – the richest market in the Arab world, with an emphasis on the Saudi market, which is considered the leading Arab market in drug use and the fourth in the world in general, according to UN data. Of $ 1-2, in the Gulf it sells for $ 15-20, and sometimes even more.
But it is not just the rich people of the Persian Gulf who are in the crosshairs. Only in the last year have huge cargo of Captagon been seized in Italy, Greece, Malaysia and Egypt. In Jordan, for example, the Captagon is sold cheaply ($ 2-3 per ball), which is increasing its popularity even among the younger classes, even in schools. As a result, Jordan has transformed from a drug smuggling pipeline into a bay into an important market in its own right, which doubled in size last year.
The consulting firm COAR estimates that the Captagon’s exports from Syria reached at least $ 3.5 billion by 2020 – five times the total of all of Syria’s legal export industries, valued at just over $ 700 million. And these are the most cautious estimates, because it is difficult to estimate the size of a smuggling-based market. COAR’s research authors themselves noted that the estimate they gave was “speculative, and that the market value is likely to be much higher.” In Saudi Arabia, for example, it is estimated that the Captagon’s consumption in the country alone reaches more than 600 million bullets a year, meaning that the market rolls in at least $ 9-12 billion a year.
What is certain is that the numbers are only growing year by year. On the last day of 2021, authorities in Kuwait confiscated 9 million captagon bullets fired with an orange charge. This is just a week after authorities in Dubai thwarted the smuggling of 1.5 tons of Captagon bullets worth about $ 380 million, hidden in a cargo of lemons. In total, smuggling of more than 250 million captagon bullets was thwarted last year, 18 times the amount recorded four years ago – and these are just the shipments seized.
Smuggling routes sponsored by the Assad family, the Syrian army and Hezbollah
The Assad regime’s role in the Captagon industry is critical. “The Syrian government is literally the exporter of drugs,” Joel Raiborn, who was Syria’s special envoy to the U.S. State Department under President Donald Trump, told the New York Times. “It is not that he is content to turn a blind eye to the activity of the drug cartels. The administration is the drug cartel itself.”
Most of the drug’s production and distribution operations are carried out under the direct supervision of Division 4 – the elite unit of the Syrian army, spread over the Damascus region and under the command of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. In addition, one of the largest drug factories, located in the city of Homs north of Damascus, is owned by one of the Assad family.
But most of the Syrian Captagon industry is not in factories, but in home laboratories, mainly in the south of the country: the countryside of Damascus, Quneitra district, Swida and Daraa to the border with Jordan. The means of producing the captagon are relatively simple, and it is based on easily obtainable ingredients like caffeine, methylxanthines and guarana, so manufacturers have no problem setting up small labs and then moving them quickly as needed.
Hezbollah also plays an important role in the industry. The organization controls the unregulated border crossings in the Lebanon Valley, thus controlling the supply of raw materials to production centers within Syria as well as their distribution to the sea and air ports of Beirut. From there the cargo leaves on ships or planes for the whole world. Is Iran also involved in the Captagon industry? According to a source in the Northern Command, there is no visible evidence of this in southern Syria.
One way or another, the Syrians do not rely solely on distribution routes from Lebanon. Another significant platform for exporting the Captagon is the port of Adakia on the Syrian coast. Syria’s main commercial port, which has made headlines in recent weeks after two attacks by the Israeli Air Force, is in the heart of the stronghold of the ruling Alawite community in Syria. The Assad family controls all activities at the port and is well aware of all types of goods entering and leaving it, including the Captagon.
In addition, the Captagon is also smuggled into the Gulf states by land via Iraq and especially Jordan, which shares a 360-kilometer border with Syria. But in October, Jordan thwarted an attempt to smuggle a Captagon from Syria using a skimmer. Smuggling tunnels.
Is Israel also in the crosshairs? Meanwhile, drug smugglers in Syria, meanwhile, prefer not to “mess” with Israel for two main reasons: first, because of the difficulty of overcoming security and security measures on the border between the two countries. And secondly that the attempts to infiltrate the Captagon into the Israeli market a few years ago were a commercial failure, probably because Israelis prefer Western drugs.
How can the Syrians be fought and at the same time reconciled?
As part of the general global indifference to what is happening in Syria, the international community, and with an emphasis on the countries that could act against the Syrian drug industry, is not showing much interest. Russia, whose forces are on Syrian soil, is not making any effort on the issue and is letting the Assad regime harvest billions from the industry. The United States actually included a special clause to fight the Syrian Captagon industry in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2022 budget draft, but until the budget was approved, the clause was omitted. Commentators in the United States estimate that his omission is another indication of the relatively small interest shown by the current administration in the Middle East and the lack of any strategy regarding the situation in Syria.
A clear American action against the Captagon industry is necessary to put an end to or at least reduce the phenomenon in Syria. The inclusion of senior drug industry activists in Syria on the list of sanctions is one of the steps that could increase pressure on the Assad regime and encourage elements within Syria and the region to provide information about the industry and its activists. According to security sources, Israel could have been very helpful in providing intelligence even to strengthen cooperation with Jordan, and indirectly with Saudi Arabia, but at this point it is also turning a blind eye to the problem.
All this leaves the battle for the Captagon between Syria and Jordan and Saudi Arabia – the countries hardest hit by the flow of drugs. The two countries are quite at a loss and are trying to carry out a combination of sanctions and attempts to negotiate to reduce the phenomenon: recognizing that stopping the Captagon in Syria is possible only by a decision of the Assad regime, and that currently its main interest is to continue refueling the industry. How do you actually resolve this contradiction? Hezbollah is accused of injustice, while at the same time conducting contacts with Assad.
In April, Saudi Arabia seized more than 5.3 million Captagon bullets in a cargo of grenades coming from Lebanon, and announced a halt to imports of all agricultural produce from Lebanon – a severe blow to the country’s already collapsing economy. In October, amid a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, Saudi Arabia announced the expulsion of the Lebanese ambassador and the cessation of all trade between them. “Lebanon is not taking the steps the kingdom has demanded of it to stop the smuggling of drugs into its territory within goods exported to it,” the official Saudi news agency announced. “This is in addition to the terrorist takeover of the border by Hezbollah and the avoidance of penalties for those involved in crimes that harm the Saudi people.”
And while Hezbollah is losing its legitimacy in the Gulf states and Jordan, Assad, who was expelled from all Arab League institutions in 2011, is once again becoming a legitimate partner. In October, Assad spoke by telephone with King Abdullah of Jordan for the first time in a decade, and the Syrian economy minister met with his emirate counterpart in Dubai. In November, Saudi Arabia sent its intelligence chief to an open meeting with his Syrian counterpart, and Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed visited the country for the first time since the outbreak of war.
Does Assad have an interest in eliminating the Captagon industry, thanks to which Syria in general is able to function? After a decade of civil war, Assad is interested in a comprehensive rehabilitation program for the country. But these restoration costs are enormous and are estimated at at least $ 250 billion. The regime and its allies have no such sums, and the Captagon cartel, successful as it may be, is nowhere near even scratching them. Such capital can come only from the sheikhs from the Gulf, after which Assad will be able to woo, among other things, with promises of war with the manufacturers of the Captagon.
Thus, following diplomatic contacts with its neighbors, Syria began reporting in November on the boycott of Captagon shipments seized on their way to the Jordanian border. Whether it is a real move or a misrepresentation to the media, his goal is clear: Assad is signaling that he is willing to make concessions in exchange for returning to the warm embrace of his wealthy neighbors.
But even that is probably not enough to solve the problem. Because while the parties are fighting over the production and distribution of the Captagon, they are forgetting an important side of the equation: its consumers. Drug use is thriving among the desperate young people of the Arab world. A decade after the Arab Spring, its goals seem to have failed in most of the region – unemployment is rising, and regimes are unstable: the coup in Syria has failed, Iraq is on the brink of civil war, the battles in Yemen and Libya are far from over and ISIS revolution has not brought good alternative. The political, social, and economic problems in the Levantine space are profound and require far more extensive root canal treatment than stopping smuggling and confiscating captagon bullets. Without comprehensive national programs that address in-depth problems, drugs, especially the cheap Captagon, will continue to be the refuge of young Arabs.