Middle East Politics & Diplomacy Syria
MENASource June 14, 2021

Narcos: Syria edition—and what the US can do about it

By Ian Larson

Major drug busts in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere across the Middle East since April evidence the explosive growth in regional trafficking of the drug captagon, an amphetamine. Little-consumed outside the Middle East, captagon—also known as the “poor man’s cocaine”—has proliferated, owing to an industrial boom centered predominantly in war-torn Syria, where the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now relies on narcotics as a financial lifeline. While the United States cannot dismantle the Syrian narco-state, the Joe Biden administration can take low-risk, commonsense steps to end the impunity enjoyed by Syria’s drug kingpins and mitigate regional spillover effects.

Throughout the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime has transformed into one of the world’s leading narcotics enterprises. Hashish is among its major drug exports, but the most lucrative is captagon, a mild stimulant pill consumed recreationally throughout the Middle East. According to a report by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR), the street value of Syrian captagon in 2020 was at least $3.5 billion, five times the value of the country’s legitimate exports.

It is widely believed that Syria’s drug revenues are pocketed by Assad regime loyalists who control manufacturing plants, underground laboratories, and export facilities. Also critical to the industry are Iran-backed militia groups, including Lebanese Hezbollah, which smuggle the chemical precursors needed to synthesize the drugs. As the COAR report explains, narcotics are now a pillar of the Syrian war economy and, as other financial resources wither on the vine, the drug trade is likely to grow in importance, sustaining the Assad regime in defiance of the international community’s pressure campaign against Damascus.

Why is Washington silent?

Among the more puzzling aspects of the Syrian drug trade is the lack of any apparent US strategy to confront it. Captagon has long been acknowledged as a regional consequence of the Syrian civil war. In July 2020, Italian port officials intercepted a $1.1 billion shipment of the drug from Syria. Despite the Syrian drug trade’s expansion into Europe, the US and its allies have failed to set a clear agenda. Although it is believed that recent captagon interceptions in Eastern Europe, Turkey, and across the Middle East have been executed with intelligence shared by US drug officials, these interceptions do not represent a discernible strategy.

In the meantime, Syrian narco-entrepreneurs continue to enrich themselves as the drug trade destabilizes the region. At least three people were killed in clashes between Syrian drug smugglers and Jordanian border forces earlier in May. In parallel, Turkey intercepted what was described as the largest-ever shipment of illegal drugs—in this case, hashish—from Syria. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has warned of a burgeoning captagon trade in Iraq. Nowhere has the regional impact been greater than in Lebanon, which shares a mountainous frontier with Syria that is riddled with smuggling routes, creating conditions described by the EU as “strengthening the criminal links between the two countries.”

Lebanon’s entanglement in the regional captagon trade has brought its crumbling economy to a worrying precipice. In late April, the Saudi Interior Ministry banned Lebanese fruit and vegetable imports after authorities in Jeddah uncovered more than 5 million captagon pills hidden inside pomegranates arriving from Lebanon. Officials in Beirut protested the ban, claiming the shipment had originated in neighboring Syria. Their defense quickly fell apart. The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon subsequently tweeted that officials in Jeddah alone have seized more than 57 million captagon pills concealed in agricultural produce arriving from Lebanon since the beginning of 2020. The street value of the pills may exceed $1 billion, suggesting that Lebanon’s own narco-trafficking industry is also expanding rapidly.

‘Name and shame’

Only the Assad regime can end the Syrian drug trade, which it views as a critical financial resource given the nation’s battered economy and international isolation. As COAR explains, Assad is likely to exploit this position as leverage in future negotiations with the West. That said, the US can take simple steps now to end the climate of impunity. US officials possess a wealth of actionable information concerning Syrian narco-trafficking. In an interview with the author, researchers knowledgeable of illicit financing and the drug trade stated that a “name and shame” campaign can bring overdue attention to Syria’s captagon industry. Public disclosures can also reduce the pressure on key informants inside the country, who are currently reluctant to come forward with invaluable data out of fear of reprisal. Such information is vital to much-needed research on the drug trade and can support better enforcement outcomes.

Special designations

Sanctions are not a panacea. The US’ overreliance on coercive sanctions in Syria has complicated aid delivery and ultimately harmed the civilian population, as humanitarian carve-outs have consistently proven inadequate. However, sanctions designations for known major drug traffickers carry little such risk. They are also a first step in establishing a clear US agenda to counter the region’s booming narcotics industry. While the Syria Sanctions Program and Caesar Act grant expansive sanctioning authority, the Kingpin Act targeting international drug traffickers is more narrowly tailored and fit-to-purpose.

Support Lebanon

Apart from Syria itself, no country has been more adversely affected by the Syrian civil war and the regional drug trade than Lebanon. Its national army, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), is a linchpin of anti-narcotics operations and a potential guarantor of strategic US interests. The LAF is now in jeopardy, as Lebanon’s unprecedented economic collapse has severely weakened it. Morale is low, soldiers no longer receive meat rations, salaries have lost roughly 90 percent of their value, and the risk of defection is high. To date, the US has provided billions of dollars in aid to the LAF, including support for border enforcement and counter-narcotics capacity. Such support is imperative, as is non-military support to preserve the LAF’s basic functionality, including food rations, fuel, and logistical aid.  

The LAF has detractors in the US, but it should be seen as a bulwark against Lebanon’s sectarian fragmentation. In the past, the LAF’s complex relationship with Hezbollah has raised hackles in Washington. However, a pragmatic US policy must recognize that, although the LAF cannot realistically curb Hezbollah’s powerful armed wing, the LAF will struggle to remain a counterbalance against the Iran-backed group without US support. In addition, since Lebanon’s popular uprising ignited in October 2019, the LAF has been accused of using excessive force against demonstrators that have advocated for the ousting of the country’s corrupt sectarian establishment. These charges are serious and worrying. However, the LAF remains broadly popular and it is arguably Lebanon’s only cross-cutting, multi-sectarian state institution. As the crisis in Lebanon has deepened, the army’s leadership has pushed back against orders to forcibly break up popular protests, siding instead with the diverse Lebanese population that the LAF is meant to represent.

Harm reduction and the underlying causes of drug use

Finally, US counter-narcotics initiatives must not export the US’s own failed drug policies. The proliferation of captagon can be seen as a Middle Eastern corollary of the opioid epidemic that has racked the US. Users in wealthy Gulf states consume captagon to partly escape the tedium of dead-end public sector work. In conflict-affected countries like Syria, such drugs are a diversion from the miseries that pervade daily life. A humane US counternarcotics strategy should include mental health and psychosocial support programming, mental health counseling, and addiction treatment, not “tough on crime” law enforcement initiatives that target end-users, particularly given the harsh sentences for drug use that are common in the region. The root causes of drug use are diverse, including rampant joblessness, political repression, and generational ennui. It is essential to ensure that the captagon boom is treated not only as a narco-financing issue, but as a consequence of persistent shortcomings brought on by inept governance, outside intervention, and economic malaise.

Ian Larson is an analyst focusing on Syria, humanitarian affairs, and aid policy at the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the positions of COAR’s donors.  

Image: Saudi customs announce seizing 2.4 million amphetamine narcotic tablets (also known as Captagon), hidden in a pomegranate fruit shipment coming, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on April 23, 2021. Photo by Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM