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MENASource October 16, 2023

Is Captagon going to halt the Arab normalization deal with Syria? An expert weighs-in

By Holly Dagres

Caroline Rose is the director of the Strategic Blind Sports Portfolio at the New Lines Institute, a think tank focusing on the intersection of US foreign policy and global geopolitics. Rose’s portfolio currently includes two projects: the Project on the Captagon Trade and the Project on Post-Withdrawal Security Landscapes.

On September 28, the Atlantic Council Syria Project, the New Lines Institute’s Special Captagon Trade Project, and the Syrian Forum held a panel discussion, ‘Addressing the captagon crisis in MENA: Strategies & challenges,’ featuring Rose as one of the distinguished speakers. After the event, our MENASource editor, Holly Dagres, discussed with Rose the captagon crisis plaguing the region and what could be done to curb the illicit trade of the popular drug.

MENASOURCE: Historically, when we think about drugs in the Middle East, opium comes to mind. When did captagon become a thing, and why?

CAROLINE ROSE: Captagon technically became an illicit drug in the mid-1980s and was phased out of the illicit market for the next few years, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and even into the early 2000s. But in terms of it becoming a popular drug, and it coming to be in the Middle East, we really started to see captagon and illicit captagon production and trafficking pop up in the early 2000s, as the trade migrated from the Balkans into Turkey and then into the Levant.

MENASOURCE: How did Syria get caught up in the captagon trade?

CAROLINE ROSE: Originally, Syria was a very lucrative place to produce captagon in very small amounts because there was a very interesting scientific exchange between Bulgarian pharmacists and Bulgarian scientists and the Syrian scientific and pharmaceutical community due to a number of different engagements, and then also, of course, relations during the Soviet Union. So, there was this transfer of scientific knowledge and expertise in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and early 2000s that allowed amphetamine-type stimulant production, like captagon, to embed itself in the region. But another reason why was because they identified a destination market in the Gulf, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other neighboring Gulf countries. But the cost, and, of course, the risk of producing captagon in the Gulf was too high given the punitive measures. So, traffickers settled in the Levant, primarily in Syria and Lebanon, because it was close to destination markets. But, at the same time, the landscape was conducive to producing captagon in small amounts without extreme threat of punitive measures and interdiction.

MENASOURCE: I often hear the term “narco-state” used in the context of Syria under Bashar al-Assad. Can you explain more about that?

CAROLINE ROSE: The term narco-state is extremely controversial, and there are not many case studies of state apparatuses completely adopting agency and sponsorship over a particular trade. And, with Syria, it’s similar in that we see the majority of the captagon trade traced back to regime-aligned members and regime-controlled territories. But ultimately there is a spectrum of actors involved.

There are violent non-state actors that are not associated with the Assad regime. That being said, I would say, if there’s a case that could be the most closely associated with the term narco-state and apply the most, I would say it is the case of the Syrian regime and their involvement in the captagon trade. Simply because captagon, in terms of its regional hub—it really is the Syrian regime-controlled areas and all of the ports, all of the border areas in which captagon flows from, being commandeered and directly controlled by the Syrian regime and affiliated with the Syrian regime security apparatus—which really shows high-level sponsorship.

MENASOURCE: When we talk about the non-state actors in the captagon trade in Syria, who are you referring to?

CAROLINE ROSE: There are definitely some gray spaces. And the fact that, again, this trade is done primarily off the books, makes it extremely difficult to trace exactly which actor and what particular area. But primarily with the Syrian regime’s Fourth Division, which is headed by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, as well as within the key industries and private business sector of the Syrian private sector. For example, figures that are involved in the agricultural and telecommunications sector, commercial shipping, oil, airline travel even.

Because of that, they’ve been able to glean port access and use a number of different checkpoints along Syria’s borders with neighboring countries. So, I would say the majority of it is very much concentrated within the hands of the Fourth Division in their private business sector, but then also partnering organizations such as [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] IRGC-sponsored militias operating inside of Syria, as well as the Lebanese-Syrian border, and a very, very close relationship with [Lebanese] Hezbollah.

MENASOURCE: Why are people in the region taking captagon?

CAROLINE ROSE: Captagon does a few different things. One, because it’s an amphetamine-type stimulant, it is primarily associated with productivity. It is very similar to Adderall and Ritalin in that it will boost productivity, allowing people to stay up late at night to either study or, if you are a truck driver or taxi driver or a worker who is working multiple jobs or multiple shifts late in the evening, and you’re struggling with sleep, it is a very useful substance. It helps with those concerns.

Additionally, captagon—because there’s amphetamines inside—it supposedly sates hunger. So, it is very helpful to those who are facing food insecurity or to those who are seeking weight loss. Finally, it is also used as a kind of recreational additive. Captagon is commonly used in conjunction with other illicit substances, particularly when used recreationally. For example, someone might take a tablet of ecstasy, but then also accompany that with captagon to allow them to stay up and stay alert—the same as with hashish and other sorts of drugs. So, captagon is seen in both a recreational sense, but then also as a drug that can help you get through the day. And, because of that, it’s popular amongst a variety of different demographics: both the young and the old, the poor and the wealthy. They all flocked to captagon for different reasons.

In the Gulf, especially, you have foreign worker populations as residents that are working multiple shifts, are facing very, very difficult economic circumstances that flock to captagon, for saving meals, staying up late at night, increasing productivity, but also amongst the Gulf’s very wealthy youth population. They take captagon recreationally. They sometimes also take it for university exams, for school examinations, but then also as a substance that is less stigmatized and less shamed than harder substances, such as cocaine and heroin. So, because captagon has an illicit history, having been a pharmaceutical commodity from the 1960s to mid-1980s, there’s also less of a stigma in taking captagon.

MENASOURCE: US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ethan Goldrich said that synthetic drugs were the number one killer in the United States. Is there a similar situation in the MENA region?

CAROLINE ROSE: Fortunately, no. I mean there’s not a lot of data on consumption rates, but fortunately, captagon is much less harmful than other synthetic substances, such as fentanyl, where even a trace amount can be lethal. But captagon has had no recorded deaths. It is highly addictive, and it certainly does carry a number of long-term systemic health concerns, particularly cardiovascular concerns. However, that being said, there has been no recorded overdose or death related to captagon consumption. None recorded, at least.

MENASOURCE: From what I’ve learned, Levant countries are captagon production’s gray area because some people are relying on this illicit drug industry as they have no option to make a living. Can you unpack that a little more for us?

CAROLINE ROSE: In terms of the production and trafficking of captagon in the region there, of course, is the crime conflict nexus. But these traffickers in these criminal organizations are targeting communities where there are no economic alternatives, where, for example, trade and suppressed economic conditions create little other opportunities for local community members to become engaged in. And, because of that, they—in some cases—either coerce community members or offer very few other options than to become involved in illicit production and trafficking. So, we’ve seen many communities that have, for centuries and decades, been involved in cross-border smuggling efforts; for example: cigarettes, fuel, weapons, hashish, and other drugs.

They’ve now been co-opted into the captagon trade given the very few other viable legitimate economic alternatives that are in the region. So, when we think about the developmental drivers to illicit economies, and particularly to captagon, the state of the local economy very much plays into that and really does help recruit local community members who otherwise would not want to participate in illicit activity. But they feel like they have no other choice.

MENASOURCE: It was interesting to learn that Interpol can take a captagon pill, and just depending on the chemical substances involved, can trace what part of the world this specific captagon pill originated from. Why does that matter in the greater context?

CAROLINE ROSE: It’s extremely important to identify and chemically trace tablets, particularly synthetic drugs, where it’s sometimes very tricky to identify exactly what is being put into that substance.

For example, with crop-based substances like marijuana or cocaine, there is a process where you might make something into paste or into resin, but ultimately, you know the main ingredients. It’s crop-based. Whereas synthetic drugs are much more dangerous because you can really have any sort of chemical or additive incorporated depending on which actor is involved.

So, it’s important for the sake of public health to identify these substances and to trace them back. It’s also important to try, especially when trying to stem precursor routes and supply side of the production process, to see who is using certain and particular chemicals and where they’re getting them from. And then, finally, it’s extremely important for accountability. Whether that is public naming and shaming of the actors involved, or perhaps a more private initiative that is going after, for example, punitive economic measures on individual actors, raids, et cetera, I think that it’s extremely important to have that ability to trace back to not only the location but also the actors that are involved.

MENASOURCE: Jordan and other countries in the Arab League were complaining that, ever since normalization with the Bashar al-Assad regime began, the captagon trade with Syria has gotten even worse. Why is that, and what are regional countries doing to address this crisis?

CAROLINE ROSE: I would say this past spring and early summer, we saw captagon elevated to some of the highest ranks in the agenda item for countries that were experimenting and considering normalization with the Syrian regime, and that was extremely notable. The Syrian regime was almost using captagon as a negotiation tactic and as leverage to essentially wield, pressure, and create concessions on the part of its regional neighbors.

We saw a lot of examples of this, particularly with the Jordanians, who created a working group with Iraq and Syria to coordinate over captagon and to coordinate over counternarcotics. We also saw Saudi Arabia flirt with the idea of counternarcotics collaboration between the kingdom and Syria. But, as you mentioned, this past summer, the captagon flows continued. And while the Syrian regime tried to create goodwill gestures and promised that it would cut down the captagon trade and clamp down on traffickers, we did not see that. And, so, because of that, we’re starting to see a shift in the region, a shift amongst countries that were considering normalization, away from direct collaboration with the Syrian regime and looking at other alternatives, for example, regional frameworks, regional mechanisms that can help combat the captagon trade.

MENASOURCE: With the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats and Congressman French Hill’s (R-AR) legislation in the US Congress in mind, how can the international community and the West further address this issue? Additionally, how meaningful are legislation and initiatives in the context of the captagon trade, specifically with a country like Syria?

CAROLINE ROSE: I think that most definitely now, with the strategy that was created this June, we are starting to see greater regional collaboration and even intelligence exchange between countries that I think will really be of help and will really support collaborative interdiction and demand reduction strategies. So, I think that that’s extremely important.

In terms of the next steps—how to build upon the progress that we’ve seen made with captagon—one avenue is accountability—continuing to encourage research institutions, journalists, and academic institutions to shine a light on any network, any connection to the captagon trade in the region, as well as in Africa and Europe, where we’re seeing the trade very quickly expand into. It’s important to shine a light on the names and the companies and the actors that are involved continuously to make sure that we have the most up-to-date data that would help interdiction as well as to demand reduction strategies. And then, secondly, I think it’s extremely important for the United States and its partners to play a role in creating a venue for more open, honest, and frank dialogue about captagon best practices, counternarcotics, collaborations, methods, assistance, rehabilitation centers, access to laboratories, and things like that.

I think that the United States can very much provide that venue and can very much be that proactive agent in the diplomatic field to encourage countries to come to the table, and really collaborate without the Syrian regime being directly involved.

Holly Dagres is editor of the Atlantic Council’s IranSource and MENASource blogs, and a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs. She also curates The Iranist newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @hdagres.

Further reading

Image: Caroline Rose speaking at Atlantic Council event