Can the US disrupt Syria's lucrative Captagon drug empire?
The Biden administration will soon submit an interagency strategy to Congress on combating Syria’s illicit Captagon drug trade, which comes hot on the heels of the diplomatic rapprochement between Damascus and Arab states.
The administration will unveil this strategy in the coming weeks, said US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Syria and the Levant Ethan Goldrich late last month.
In May, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia shortly after Syria’s readmission into the body following a 12-year suspension over its bloody civil war.
"The multi-billion-dollar illicit trade has become Damascus's single largest source of revenue by far, with the war-torn country emerging from over a decade of civil war as a narco-state"
In return for ending his pariah status, Arab states want Assad to curb the Captagon trade, which has affected many of their countries. In the same month it welcomed Assad, Riyadh seized 8 million of the pills in a major drug bust in the kingdom.
Damascus has insisted that easing US sanctions against it is critical to any progress being made on this issue. Washington opposes the diplomatic rapprochement between Syria and Arab states.
Banned since the 1970s, Captagon is a stimulant pill containing fenethylline and dubbed the “poor man’s cocaine”. Syria has become the global hub for the addictive drug, producing an estimated 80 percent of the world’s supply.
The multi-billion-dollar illicit trade has become Damascus’s single largest source of revenue by far, leading many to reasonably conclude that the war-torn country has emerged from over a decade of civil war as a narco-state.
The Centre for Operational Analysis and Research, a political risk and development consultancy, said Captagon exports from Syria had a market value of $3.46 billion in 2020, four times the country’s legal exports.
Other estimates suggest the trade could be worth more than $30 billion annually.
Last July, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee proposed the H.R. 6265 Captagon Act, which calls for a “strategy by the United States Government to disrupt and dismantle the Captagon trade and narcotics networks of Bashar al-Assad in Syria,” the same strategy Biden will soon submit to Congress.
The House of Representatives approved the bill in September. President Biden signed a massive defence spending bill into law in December which included H.R. 6265.
“The US will continue sanctioning leading individuals in Syria and Lebanon involved in illicit Captagon manufacturing and smuggling,” Emily Hawthorne, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE told The New Arab.
“But it will not likely significantly curb the market for Syria unless US efforts are matched with enforcement efforts within regional countries like Saudi Arabia,” she added.
"The US focus on punishing the Syrian government for its Captagon trade is a useful shift for Washington"
“Because regional governments like Saudi Arabia and the UAE acknowledge the problem that Captagon presents to their own governments and societies, the US focus on punishing the Syrian government for its Captagon trade is a useful shift for Washington,” Hawthorne said.
“The US can focus on fighting the Captagon trade rather than more overtly fighting the Syrian government itself.”
In early May, Jordan conducted airstrikes against a well-known drug dealer in southern Syria. The strikes came a day after Amman warned it would use force to combat the drug trade, which has used its territory as a transit to Arab Gulf countries.
The US may back similar actions in the future as part of a broader regional effort to actively combat the trade through forceful measures.
“I think the US would definitely be involved in that kind of regional strategy, but it is unlikely to lead it,” Hawthorne said. “It will want to be working in close alignment behind or beside strong regional partners leading the charge.”
Caroline Rose, the Director of the Strategic Blind Spots Portfolio at the New Lines Institute, where she leads the Project on the Captagon Trade, explained that the US has begun to “incrementally build an interagency strategy”.
That strategy is in line with the Captagon Act, which “seeks to target key figures and networks affiliated with industrial-scale production and trafficking” of the narcotic.
“Thus far, this has primarily been aimed at elements of the trade as they relate to the Syrian regime and supportive Hezbollah factions, with recent sanctions in late March,” Rose told The New Arab. “I think the US will seek to impose additional sanctions targeting commercial entities and key figures of the trade,” she added.
“However, the question is whether the US will build upon this strategy and address the trade’s growing regional scope, looking at intensifying activity along transit routes in Iraq, Jordan, and even re-transit sites in Europe.”
"I don't think the strategy - as it stands - would seriously reduce the volume of pills streaming into the region. We haven't seen any indication that production has dramatically reduced"
Rose further contends that the strategy serves the “purpose of accountability” since it signals to Damascus “that the US is serious about initiating additional sanctions against regime-aligned actors” and monitoring their involvement in the trade.
“However, I don’t think the strategy - as it stands - would seriously reduce the volume of pills streaming into the region. We haven’t seen any indication that production has dramatically reduced,” she said.
“Additionally, now that Syria is normalising with the region and Captagon has been elevated at the top of the normalisation agenda, it’s likely the regime will continue its involvement in the trade without regional accountability and enforcement.”
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon