In April, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states temporarily banned the import of agricultural products from Lebanon. This was not a response to political events or to an overt military or political provocation by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terror group that effectively runs Lebanon. Rather, the ban came in response to the discovery of a massive shipment of the amphetamine Captagon, concealed in Lebanese produce that arrived in a Saudi port.
Captagon is a brand name for a dangerous, addictive amphetamine-type drug that includes fenethylline hydrochloride. Captagon is not new to the Middle East; it has been around since the early 1960s and is a popular party drug for some. However, the scale of Captagon production and trafficking in and around Syria is new and concerning.
A recent New York Times investigative report detailed how industrial-scale Captagon production and trafficking is quickly becoming financially indispensable both to Hezbollah and to the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Branching into the amphetamine market likely also provides new sources of income for other Iranian proxy groups active in global narcotics trade.
A financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon, combined with the long-term effects of U.S. and European sanctions, cut off significant sources of revenue for the Assad regime. In need of cash, the regime turned to Captagon, which it ships out of both Syrian and Lebanese ports, fueling a war effort that has killed over 500,000 Syrians and displaced millions more. This turn to the drug trade signals a new phase in the Syrian conflict: the emergence of Syria as a narco-state.
A wave of major Captagon seizures across the globe originating in and around Syria suggests a multibillion-dollar global trade. In July 2020, Italian authorities seized 84 million Captagon tablets worth a total of €1 billion, believed to have originated in the Assad regime-controlled Port of Latakia. It was the world’s biggest seizure of amphetamines to date, according to the Italian government.
Authorities in Romania, Malaysia, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere have made additional seizures, all believed to be linked to the Assad regime.
The Captagon drug trade not only facilitates Assad’s atrocities against the Syrian people, but could also create further instability through the widespread proliferation of amphetamine usage in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.
Conflict, destruction and territorial fragmentation are key factors allowing armed groups and narco-entrepreneurs to profit from the drug trade. Large-scale narcotics production and trafficking by rogue regimes or in ungoverned or under-governed spaces often sows further regional instability, leading to higher criminality and public health problems in consumer and producer countries. This pattern is now taking hold in Libya, where there is a burgeoning Captagon trade with reported Syrian links.
Furthermore, narcotics markets are not static. Today’s Captagon amphetamine markets could easily transform into far more potent methamphetamine markets, which happened in Afghanistan.
The political wars of today’s Middle East risk becoming the lethal narco-wars of tomorrow.
Stemming the tide of Captagon production and trafficking inside Syria requires stepped-up coordination and enforcement to improve drug interdiction in transit countries and foreign markets. To address these threats before they metastasize and become unmanageable, the United States should develop an international effort to disrupt and ultimately dismantle the narcotics production and trafficking networks associated with the Assad regime.
Any such effort must start with a coordinated interagency process to integrate diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement efforts to identify and prosecute or sanction individuals and companies involved with Assad regime-linked Captagon production and trafficking networks. The United States should also support law enforcement and sanctions-related investigations in partner countries receiving or transiting large quantities of Captagon or Captagon precursors.
Recognizing the problem, Congress has issued multiple calls for the development of an interagency strategy to target the Assad regime’s trafficking networks and work closely with allies and affected governments.
Syria’s growing drug trade is unlikely to shrink, let alone disappear, until the civil conflict itself ends. Only through international pressure, a coordinated interagency and international effort to target narco-trafficking and a political solution to the conflict in Syria will key drug-trafficking networks become a liability, rather than a source of badly needed revenue.
Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow at FDD. From July 2019 to December 2020, Matthew served as the senior sanctions advisor in the Office of the Special Representative for Syria Engagement. From 2001 to 2018, he served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.