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Event Recap October 30, 2023

Addressing the captagon crisis in MENA: Strategies & Challenges

By Diane Mohamed and Rachel Friedman

On September 28, 2023, the Atlantic Council’s Syria Program hosted a hybrid event on “Addressing the captagon Crisis in MENA: Strategies & Challenges” with an array of experts to discuss the evolving captagon trade in the MENA region and beyond. The panel focused on the current captagon landscape in Syria, captagon’s place within the global illicit supply chain, the importance of captagon for the United States (US), the Syrian American advocacy efforts against captagon, and the available tools to press for accountability.  

The event featured opening remarks by Nour DabboussiProgram Assistant for the Rafik Harris & Middle East programs, keynotes remarks by Ethan GoldrichUS Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for Near Eastern Affairs, and was moderated by Qutaiba IdibiProject Manager of the Syria Program at the Atlantic Council. The panelist are Caroline Rose, Director of the Strategic Blind Spots Portfolio at New Lines Institute; Annette Idler, Director of the Minerva Global Security Program, and Associate Professor in Global Security at University of Oxford; Betsy DribbenHead of Advocacy for Multifaith Alliance; Yasser Tabbara is an international human rights attorney who, as Co-founder and Chief Strategist at the Syrian Forum and Chairman of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, and Dylan Frost, Deputy Chief of Staff and Legislative Director for Representative James French Hill.

Opening remarks 

In its pursuit of sustaining financial stability after years of enduring years of diplomatic and economic isolation, the Assad regime has transformed many war-torn areas into the world’s cardinal captagon laboratories. Nour highlighted how this psychoactive drug, estimated as a multibillion-dollar chain, has, on one hand, empowered the Assad regime to maintain access over foreign current assets amidst international sanctions, and on the other, bolster its smuggling network which operates across 17 countries to guarantee the drugs’ export throughout Europe and the Gulf. Moreover, the Iran-backed Hezbollah has proved as a successful partner for the Assad regime, as it oversees both local production and packaging of captagon. Notably, unchecked corruption facilitates the exploitation of public infrastructure, such as the port of Beirut, for exporting captagon without government surveillance. 

Furthermore, the Assad regime’s narcotic distribution infrastructure has become a top health and security threat to neighboring Arab states but also a growing concern to the United States. In an attempt to curtail this threat, Arab states have resorted to diplomatic reproachment by readmitting the Assad regime into the Arab League earlier in May. However, the United States is pursuing a distinct approach through an inter-agency strategy that aims to disrupt and dismantle narcotics production and trafficking, along with affiliated networks connected to the Assad regime. 

Keynote remarks

In June, the US unveiled its interagency strategy for combating captagon trafficking. In his speech, Goldrich emphasized this strategy’s overarching lines of efforts:

  • i. To support law enforcement agencies involved in investigating captagon-related activities 
  • ii. To utilize economic sanctions and other tools to disrupt and dismantle captagon networks.
  • iii. To aid regional partners in combating drug trafficking and consumption. The United States is providing security assistance to Jordan and Lebanon 
  • iv. To build coordinated approaches with multilateral institutions in order to strengthen the global response against captagon 

Although captagon is neither produced nor widely available in the US, Goldrich highlighted the deep concern about its impact on the health, economy, and social welfare of communities in the Middle East. In July, Secretary Blinken initiated a global coalition aimed at combating the rising threat of synthetic drugs, which pose a critical threat, not only as a leading cause of mortality among Americans aged 18 to 49, but also a significant concern in regions like Africa, the Middle East and Asia. 

Regional impact, challenges, and trends 

The captagon trade should not be considered in isolation when assessing its ramifications on local security, public health, and the economic landscape in Syria. Rather, Rose emphasized the transnational and transregional threat of the drug. The captagon trade targets established markets in the Gulf, while concurrently attempting to create novel consumption and destination markets. Rose mentioned that there has been credible evidence of captagon trafficking and production that extends beyond Syria into countries such as Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Netherlands, and Germany.  

Rose highlighted two challenges in addressing the captagon crisis. The first consists of the lack of a precise definition of captagon’s composition. The latter has evolved over time, departing from its original formula prevalent in illicit markets during the 1960s to 1980s. Presently, it is comprised of a mélange of interpretations of a synthetic amphetamine-type stimulant, sometimes devoid of any amphetamine. In April 2022, the New Lines Institute reported that captagon typically contains amphetamine, sometimes in minuscule quantities, and occasionally comprising a substantial portion of up to 45-47% in the form of amphetamine metabolites per pill.  Also, captagon may encompass caffeine, quinine, and sometimes toxic levels of metals such as copper and zinc. 

Notably, there is a burgeoning trend of pseudoephedrine potentially being used in captagon production. Rose noted Syria’s consistent demand for pseudoephedrine since the onset of the Syrian war, underlining the paramount role this precursor material plays in the context of captagon production. She also acknowledged that there may be other various reasons to account for this, yet Syria remains one of the largest importers of pseudoephedrine, despite the pharmaceutical industry’s collapse. Although this does not definitively establish pseudoephedrine as the primary input of captagon production, the mounting evidence does lend credence to the notion that it plays a significant role. This confluence of factors strongly indicates a substantial and intricate link between pseudoephedrine and the mass production of captagon by the Assad regime. 

Secondly, the participation of the Syrian regime in discussions regarding the containment and prevention of captagon production and trafficking, particularly in the context of Interpol’s efforts, warrants scrutiny. Interpol plays a pivotal role in combating illicit trade including captagon. Operation Lionfish, as highlighted by Rose, focuses on regular seizures of captagon, meth, crystal, and cocaine. Interpol also actively fosters the exchange of regional information and intelligence among stakeholders. However, as of June 2021, Interpol’s persistent attempts to incorporate the Syrian regime within regional discussions – despite evidence of the regime’s involvement in captagon production and trafficking — has compromised Interpol’s creditability and ability to address interdiction. As Rose succinctly phrased it, “It’s like giving the cartel a seat at the table.” 

A global supply chain network 

Idler outlined five key points through which captagon is intricately embedded within the global illicit supply chain networks. First, captagon does not exist within a vacuum; it intricately intersects with a diverse array of illicit flows, including the trafficking of weapons, humans, and various narcotics. This interconnection is exemplified by the case of precursor chemicals vital for captagon production, as previously noted by Rose. Second, the management of these supply chains is multifaceted. At each stage, from material sourcing to production, transportation, trafficking, and the final market distribution is overseen by distinct actors that are globally connected. The third aspect reveals the instrumental role played by intermediaries or brokers, who operate at the local, regional, and global levels. They facilitate the coordination and unification of all the different phases of the supply chain. Fourth, the routes utilized for captagon trafficking are not confined to physical locations; they also encompass the requisite expertise and knowledge needed to execute these operations. Also, these trafficking nodes are not limited to one commodity. Lastly, illicit markets are interconnected, irrespective of the varying priorities given to different substances in different countries. Meaning, that a shock to one market can reverberate globally across other markets, prompting shifts in production strategies. For instance, while the United States places greater emphasis on fentanyl, a shock in the fentanyl market can lead consumers to seek alternatives, thereby increasing the demand for other markets, including captagon. Idler anticipates that captagon could be the next substance to be exploited by organizations like the Mexican cartels, furthering their endeavors to consolidate power and exacerbating the security risks already present.

A Global Health Crisis

For her part, Dribben explained an often under-researched and under-reported perspective: global health. Captagon should be an American priority because it can easily become a prominent drug in America causing major health implications. Like Fentanyl and Oxycontin, of which America already has a serious addiction problem, captagon is a synthetic drug that requires little knowledge and equipment to produce. She noted that even if captagon trade was halted and addicts were cut off, there is no protocol for dealing with the addiction. In Saudi Arabia, an estimated 40% of youth are addicted to captagon but the region’s medical treatment facilities are not well-equipped to treat drug addiction due to the way it is stigmatized as a criminal problem and not a health one. The American medical community is beginning to take note of captagon, and this attention will hopefully drive greater constituent interest in Congress. There is also increased global engagement, especially from the United Kingdom and the European Union, which is a promising step forward.

Finding Accountability

Tabbara focused on accountability methods for the Syrian Assad Regime. He explained that the captagon crisis is just one piece in the larger puzzle of the Assad Regime’s human and legal rights abuses, but that it can perhaps offer an entry way into taking accountability measures for other crimes. Trials over the illegality of captagon production and export in the International Criminal Court are one possible avenue for accountability. The Syrian Forum’s legal team has also researched existing legislative frameworks that can hold individuals and companies with associations and dealings with the captagon trade accountable here in the United States. The research found that the existing legal frameworks fall short of providing the opportunity for criminal prosecution of those who are involved in the captagon criminal networks. This type of accountability is also greatly important for US national security. Research has shown that both Hezbollah and Iran are directly involved in the captagon trade. A major faciliatory player in captagon trade is the 4th division, an Iran sponsored division of Syria’s military led by Bashar Al Assad’s brother, Maher Al Assad. Tabbara also explained that the Arab world already lost one avenue for accountability when they decided to pursue normalization with the Assad regime and re-admit it into the Arab League. This was a very important negotiating card that was given away for empty promises. The Arab world is now realizing that it is not a question of willingness for Assad to stop captagon and other illicit activities, but that Assad is unable to deliver and to keep order in his country.

The Role of Congress and the Executive Branch

Frost explained that Hill has been at the forefront of the United States’ legislative fight against captagon as he has introduced two important Acts on the topic: the Illicit Captagon Trafficking Suppression Act to sanction those involved in the production and trafficking of the drug, and the Countering Assad’s Proliferation Trafficking And Garnering of Narcotics (CAPTAGON) Act. The latter will allow the State Department and Treasury to sanction other actors in this trade, and it also grants power to the administration to designate political organizations, militias, and state/non-state actors involved in drug trafficking. Frost explained that these important bills were only possible because of the grassroots support Representative French Hill receives from his district on this issue. The current administration is also supportive of fighting captagon trade as evident by Secretary Blinken’s recent speech in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on captagon and normalization with Assad.

Takeaways and Recommendations 

  • 1. Goldrich recommends seeking innovative strategies to address drug demand and consumption, emphasizing that Global Reduction Programs could also benefit US partners in the region.  
  • 2. Moving forward, Betsy urges educating and fostering support from the medical community at a grassroots level. Their involvement is integral to developing medical protocols for captagon addiction that can be used throughout the world, but especially in the region. The United States must also designate and recognize the actors involved in captagon trade as those are not always obvious. 
  • 3. Goldrich urges sustained coordination on sanctions with the United Kingdom and European partners to exert pressure for accountability regarding the Assad regime’s abuses, and to constrain the regime’s ability to profit from the conflict in Syria. 
  • 4. Rose underscores the critical importance of understanding the composition of captagon for law enforcement, intelligence, and the healthcare sector.
  • 5. Idler proposes that the United States proactively takes measures to prevent the exploitation of captagon by organizations like the Mexican cartel. Therefore, it is imperative to channel international efforts toward disrupting the captagon trade network and the associated power dynamics to safeguard global security interests.
  • 6. Yasser recommends filling the research gaps that could allow for the creation of stronger legal frameworks under which US based companies and individuals can be held accountable for their involvement in illicit captagon trade and networks.  Before any legislation is written, there needs to be an analysis of the jurisdictional limitations of the United States on captagon including money laundering operations, supply chain operations, the use of the US dollar in captagon trade, and extradition of foreign nationals. Research on the role and extent of involvement of Hezbollah, Iran, and Iranian militias in captagon trade also must be greatly expanded upon. In order for this research to be effective, there must be open communication between the United States and its allies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. When those make arrests related to captagon, it is extremely important for them to hold public prosecutions, so that the public is aware of the risk and consequences of involving themselves with captagon.
  • 7. Dylan suggests that the next step for Congress should focus on passing an anti-normalization act with the Assad regime, which would help hold corporations accountable for illicit interactions with the Syrian government – noting the exemptions provided for humanitarian aid. Congress can also find ways to hold individuals involved with captagon who are outside of Syria accountable through existing laws and extradition treaties.

Related Experts: Qutaiba Idlbi and Nour Dabboussi