Captagon trafficking in the Middle East
Counterfeit Captagon is reportedly one of the most popular drugs in the Middle East-EPA
In 2021, trafficking in captagon, a synthetic amphetamine, exceeded $5 billion in the Middle East, according to a report by the New Line Institute. According to the authors of the report, Caroline Rose and Alexander Soderholm, the increase in the captagon trade, particularly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, between 2020 and 2021 is around 2 billion dollars and only based on seizures made, estimated at 420 million tablets, while some countries do not disclose annual statistics.
The reported quantity seized, therefore, reflects only a part of the actual quantities seized, which in turn reflects only a small proportion of the quantities produced.
Captagon, mainly produced in Syria and mainly consumed in Saudi Arabia, is easily recognizable with its two half-moons printed on the tablet and was originally marketed in Germany in the 1960s with fenethylline as the active ingredient, a synthetic drug of the amphetamine family.
Nowadays, this drug no longer contains fenethylline, is more like speed and concentrates its production and consumption in the Middle East. The market value of the drug produced in Syria exceeds the value of the country’s legal exports and has pushed the country into the narco-state club, especially since the New Line Institute report reveals that the family of President Bashar al-Assad is personally involved in the production and marketing of captagon.
According to the report, the Syrian regime uses this trade to survive economically and politically following the international sanctions that have hit it since the outbreak of the war in 2011.
Syria is not the only captagon producer, however; Lebanon, otherwise the world’s third-largest hashish exporter behind Morocco and Afghanistan, hosts these smaller production units and serves as an extension of the Syrian captagon trade by being a key transit point for trafficking.
The report also points out that the Syrian regime has the support of several militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, to organize its trafficking and smuggling in the controlled areas on the border between the two countries.
Hezbollah has thus been able to use its experience in smuggling Lebanese cannabis to set up and control the captagon trade in Syria. Currently used as a recreational drug by wealthy youth in Saudi Arabia, where the pill sells for $20, and by many consumers in Syria, where it is sold for less than $1, captagon, thanks to these varied reasons for use, could eventually find a profitable market in Europe, says Caroline Rose.
To ensure the captagon trade, Bashar Al-Assad uses networks affiliated with him to transport the drugs he produces to the Arabian Peninsula, notably through neighbouring Lebanon.
Syria’s involvement in the drug trade in Syria began when Syrian troops occupied part of Lebanon in 1976 and Hafez El-Assad decided to take a tithe on the production of hashish in the Bekaa plain. He then encouraged the production of poppies by setting up laboratories to transform opium into heroin under the control of his army.
The elites of the Syrian regime then managed this traffic with the help of gangsters, the chabbiha, and at their head General Ali Douba, the head of military intelligence, who was later dismissed by Bashar Al-Assad when he came to power in 2000. The departure of the Syrian army from Lebanon in 2005 marked the end of the first period of the Syrian drug cartel.
But with the strong demand for captagon in Saudi Arabia, the Syrian regime then developed production units on its soil to better control them. These units made it possible to supply the drugs to the various actors in the conflict, Syrian militiamen and fighters, and helped to ensure a significant influx of foreign currency for the various forces involved, including the Daesh jihadists.
The latter have developed their own units and export production to Turkey and areas controlled by the Syrian regime. With the recapture of territory, Bashar al-Assad now controls most of the regional production of captagon and the operational direction of trafficking is provided by Bashar al-Assad’s brother, General Maher al-Assad, head of the Fourth Division, the president’s bodyguard.
With production facilities protected by uniformed soldiers and sometimes even set up in restricted military zones, and with the Fourth Division controlling the territory, the flow of captagon goes on without major obstacles.
A recent New York Times investigation revealed the names of two civilian relays of the Syrian drug trade, Amer Khiti and Khodr Taher, both of whom have been rewarded by the regime, the first with a deputy’s post in the July 2020 elections and the second with an Order of Merit decoration.
Bashar al-Assad’s control over the captagon trade allows him to establish his authority to control and stifle possible scandals such as those linked to his wife’s economic ambitions or to the rebellion of his cousin, Ibrahim Makhlouf, and also to strengthen ties with the Lebanese Hezbollah, an indispensable partner for exporting the drug from Lebanon.
Bashar al-Assad had to review his strategy in the spring of 2021 because Saudi Arabia, noticing an increase in seizures of captagon hidden in fruit and vegetables from Lebanon, decided to impose an embargo on these products.
The Syrian President then turned to Jordan, which has seen numerous attempts to incur illicit shipments since August 2021.
Recent actions have included the destruction of a drone filled with captagon at the Jordanian border and the death of a Jordanian officer in the grip of traffickers from Syria. Jordanian authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about the increase in trafficking, as they estimate that about one-fifth of the drugs destined for Saudi Arabia could be consumed locally, whereas the country has been rather spared from drug use until now.