Captagon, trafficking, and the long comedown of the Syrian narco-state

Drug pills are displayed at customs warehouse after a total of 1,072 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of Captagon drugs â more than 6.2 million pills. [Getty]
7 min read
05 August, 2021
In-depth: Captagon is by no means a new phenomenon in the Middle East, but the Syrian civil war and a collapsing economy have pushed the market into high gear.

On 23 July, Saudi Arabia's Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority seized 2.1 million Captagon pills en-route from Jordan. The pills, which entered the Kingdom through Al-Haditha port hidden in containers of tomato paste, were marked "made in Syria" and bore the logo of Damascus-based company 'Al-Hasnaa'.  

On 1 August, at the port of Jeddah, Saudi authorities seized an even larger 8.7-million-pill shipment stashed inside bags of cocoa beans.

Captagon, a brand name for amphetamine-based drug fenethylline, was first synthesised in the 1960s as a treatment for ADHD and depression. The drug failed to achieve widespread approval and by 1986 became a controlled substance in nearly all countries. 

"Law enforcement measures targeting production centres in Europe have pushed the manufacturing of the narcotic closer to its largest consumer markets" 

Illegal production and distribution of the drug have continued in some parts of the world, with the Middle East a significant market. Most Captagon pills in the Middle East contain little to no fenethylline, but rather a mixture of stimulants, varying from caffeine to methamphetamine, with the Captagon name used for branding purposes.

In the 1990s, production of the drug largely took place in Bulgaria, reaching markets in the Gulf via Turkey or the Caucasus. However, law enforcement measures targeting production centres in Europe have pushed the manufacturing of the narcotic closer to its largest consumer markets.

The Syrian civil war

Captagon is by no means a new phenomenon in the Middle East, with quantities of the drug smuggled into the Gulf states for decades.

However, the Syrian civil war has pushed the market into high gear. During the conflict the drug gained a reputation as "chemical courage", allowing combatants to stay alert.

The perks of the drug go far beyond its battlefield application, however: Captagon, and its production, became ancillary to the financing of many of the conflict's factions.

More than 6.2 million Captagon pills were seized during a search by customs officials in the Iskenderun Port of Hatay province in Turkey on 17 May 2021. [Getty]

Captagon was initially dubbed the "Jihadi Drug" by some Western media, but this narrative has proven to be somewhat erroneous. Despite alarmism to the contrary, the Islamic State (IS) was one of the actors least reliant on drug trafficking - at its height, the group maintained a diversified $2bn economy of oil, agriculture, and taxation. 

However, that is not to say the group was free from any involvement - in 2018 the Free Syrian Army reportedly seized and destroyed an estimated $1.4m worth of Captagon from IS forces.

Captagon was a far more crucial resource for smaller factions, with the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra both confirmed to have controlled production facilities.

The Assad family network

The gargantuan seizure of 84 million (worth $1.2bn) Captagon pills at the Italian port of Salerno in 2020 caused authorities to initially direct blame towards the much-depreciated IS.

The reality, later pointed out by Der Spiegel, is that the shipment had, in fact, come from the village of al-Bassa in Latakia, a coastal regime fiefdom under the command of Maher al-Assad, brother of Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad, nearly a thousand kilometres from any IS-held area.

The region is home to the nation's principal port city of the same name and sits at the heart of a massive state-sanctioned drug trafficking network. Shipments seized in Greece, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all been traced back to this region.

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Syria has witnessed an 83% drop in total revenue since 2010. International sanctions against the Assad regime, coupled with an estimated reconstruction cost ranging from $250 to $400bn and a colossal national debt, have left the economy in tatters.

The regime, struggling to support itself, has turned to drug trafficking to supplement its battered economy. According to a report by the Middle East and North Africa Maritime Development Program, Syrian ports see $16bn worth of narcotics pass through annually.

Control of this booming commodity falls to a few influential allies of the regime. The mega shipment that landed in Salerno is assumed to come from a factory owned by Samer Kamal al-Assad, a paternal cousin of Bashar al-Assad.

Another prominent figure implicated in the narcotics ring was Rami Makhlouf, at one point Syria's richest man and maternal cousin of President al-Assad. In April 2020, four tonnes of hashish was discovered hidden in milk cartons in the Egyptian port of Said.

"The regime, struggling to support itself, has turned to drug trafficking to supplement its battered economy"

The shipment had come from a company called "Milkman", owned by Makhlouf. Though he denied involvement, it is assumed that Makhlouf served a crucial role on the export side of the Syrian drug trade.

In 2020, however, Makhlouf's assets were seized and he has since been reduced to a political non-entity within Syria. Whether this was to free up contracts to appease Russian business interests, or because Makhlouf had become too big for his boots, remains unknown.

Iran's proxy network

The involvement of Hezbollah within the network cannot be understated. Despite the group's denial of involvement with narcotics along ideological lines, it maintains a global spiderweb of criminal enterprise. Up to 10,000 Hezbollah fighters were on the ground in Syria at any given time during the civil war, fighting alongside regime forces to retake rebel-held areas.

In 2013, the group played a crucial role in the recapture of Qusayr, handing control of the crucial corridor connecting Damascus to the coastal cities back to the regime. The group now holds sway across swathes of southern and eastern Syria, overseeing the production and trafficking of Captagon and hashish through the nation's ports.

It is impossible to mention Hezbollah without mentioning Iran, the primary source of both doctrine and funding for the group. Iran was heavily involved in coordinating Hezbollah's (and other Shia militias) actions during the war via its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) with the recently assassinated Qasem Solemani overseeing numerous operations.

captagon drugs - afp
Syrian police show seized drugs and Captagon pills at the Drug Enforcement Administration in the capital Damascus on 4 January 4 2016. [Getty]

Iran, while not directly producing drugs being exported from Syria, does have a sizable stake in the operation. Hezbollah's increased trafficking of Captagon along with a number of other illicit activities undertaken with the IRGC serve to relieve the heavily-sanctioned Tehran government. 

Increased financial autonomy by its proxies takes the pressure off Tehran, while the establishment of illicit financial networks cushions the Iranian regime's coffers against drops in oil prices and further sanctions.

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic's 2019 leasing of Latakia's port facilities demonstrates a high level of complicity as the port is, for all intents and purposes, pumping Captagon into the Mediterranean.

Foreign markets

The largest market for Captagon in the world is Saudi Arabia, with the Kingdom accounting for a third of global amphetamines seizures. Saudi Arabia is primarily supplied with the drug via land routes through Jordan and Iraq, but seizures at its ports are also common.

Official Saudi relations with the Syrian regime remain largely non-existent, making any sort of collaboration in stemming the tide of Captagon an impossibility.

The Mediterranean route sees consignments of the drug reach markets in the EU, with seizures taking place in Greece and Italy. The drug has also been dispatched to markets in North Africa via this route, with quantities seized in both Egypt and Libya.

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Syrian Captagon also travels south to Lebanon through the Qalamoun Mountains for distribution via Hezbollah's pre-established trafficking infrastructure. The Lebanese government has had little success in mitigating trafficking across its porous northern border.

Finally, Syrian Captagon travels north towards Turkey, often leaving the hands of the regime and being trafficked by local organisations such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Turkey, though not a massive consumer market for the drug, acts as a distribution hub to other Middle Eastern countries.

What next?

While it's easy to mistake the Syrian Captagon trade for a well-oiled, state-backed trafficking machine, the reality is far more chaotic. The Assad regime, though deemed victorious in the civil war, inherited a defeated country. Over 90% of Syrians are now below the poverty line and food insecurity is on the rise.

Given the unsalvageable economic position of the regime, it is likely that Captagon will continue to pour out of the failing state. As global networks grow and individuals and groups coalesce around the revenue stream, the more entrenched the trade will become.

The more intrinsic the trade becomes to the economy, the more likely it will be to further destabilise the country, either through internal disputes or by further damaging relations with its neighbours.

"Regime complicity in areas they control, and the inability to exert much influence in areas that they don't, leaves Syria with no means of reining in the narcotics trade"

The recent decision by Saudi Arabia to ban Syrian produce is a prime example of how reliance on drug trafficking revenue can serve to damage the conventional economy, as the already limited desire to trade with the state is eroded internationally.

Regime complicity in areas they control, and the inability to exert much influence in areas that they don't, leave Syria with no means of reining in the narcotics trade. Efforts to mitigate the damage caused by the trade will likely have to come from cooperation on regional policy and law enforcement in the affected countries.

Adam Doyle is an artist and researcher based in the Republic of Ireland specialising in Irish politics.

Follow him on Instagram: @spicebag.exe