In July 2020, Italian police announced they had seized a record amount of drugs, worth nearly $1 billion, aboard three cargo ships from Syria. While this was the world’s single largest operation of its kind, it wasn’t the first time a cache of Captagon, an amphetamine turned lucrative export, had been intercepted en route from the Middle East to European ports.

Throughout the Syrian civil war, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has transformed into one of the world’s leading narcotics enterprises, relying on drug trafficking as a financial lifeline. In regime-held areas and across the frontier in Lebanon, networks of crime families, Hezbollah affiliates, and political figures have formed cross-border cartels that make and distribute industrial scale quantities of drugs.

To Syria and Lebanon’s east, Afghanistan hosts a deeply entrenched illicit drug economy that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime calls “one of the world’s greatest transnational drug and crime threats.” Opium farming is a major source of jobs and income; estimates of the Taliban’s annual share of the illicit drug economy range from $100 to $400 million.

What challenges does the region’s burgeoning narcotics trade pose to the United States? How does the drug trade perpetuate regional conflict and instability? Does the Biden administration have a clear counter-narcotics strategy in the Middle East?


James Walsh
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. Department of State

David Daoud
Nonresident Fellow
Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, The Atlantic Council

Ian Larson
Chief Syria Analyst
Center for Operational Analysis and Research

Marika Theros
Nonresident Senior Fellow
South Asia Center, The Atlantic Council


William Wechsler
Senior Director
Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, The Atlantic Council

Middle East Programs

Through our Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, the Atlantic Council works with allies and partners in Europe and the wider Middle East to protect US interests, build peace and security, and unlock the human potential of the region.