Syria Insight: Assad regime's captagon trade goes unchallenged
The departure point for the cargo, the Syrian port of Latakia, and the size of the stash, around 84 million pills, pointed to one thing - state collusion.
Italian authorities blamed the embattled Islamic State (IS) group for the amphetamine haul but analysts quickly pointed out the probable involvement of the Syrian regime in the operation.
Since then, tons of the drug have been uncovered in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and Gulf region, including a 15 million tablet haul in Saudi Arabia in late July.
Many more have likely evaded customs officials and gone down the throats of millions, from long-haul lorry drivers in Iraq to wealthy partygoers in Saudi Arabia.
"Syria, a former regional hub for pharmaceuticals before the war, has become perhaps the Arab world's biggest exporter of captagon, eclipsing even Lebanon's production"
Jordan, a transit point for the amphetamine since it reopened its borders with Syria, has seen violence on its northern frontier and an explosion in crime across the country linked to the drug.
In January, a Jordanian Army officer was killed following clashes with armed Syrian gangs, with its military engaged in often fatal (mostly for the smugglers) shootouts on the border.
Last month, King Abdullah explicitly blamed the spike in violence on Iran-linked militias, while ministers have identified the drugs trade and these Tehran-funded groups as a key security threat for Jordan.
Amman is growing increasingly frustrated with the apparent complicity of the Assad regime in captagon smuggling but there appears little appetite for tough action against Damascus from regional states.
The Syrian regime has been deeply involved in the production of captagon for decades, bringing in scientific expertise from Eastern Europe from the 1970s when the drug was still legal in much of the world.
The explosion in captagon's popularity in the Middle East came after Hezbollah's alleged production of the drug following the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, acting as a cheap buzz for young Arabs or a stimulant for overburdened workers and students.
Despite repeated denials, analysts say captagon has become a key revenue source for Hezbollah which likely takes a huge slice of the estimated $5 billion generated in the region annually from the trade.
The Shia movement's strongholds in eastern Lebanon and Syrian border areas, controlled by its Assad regime allies, have become a hub for its production.
For ordinary Lebanese, the trade has hit them hard with drug busts in Saudi Arabia leading to export bans from Lebanon and a downslide in tourism following fraught Lebanon-Gulf relations.
"Hezbollah has been involved in the trade for decades and in 2008, 2009 Saudi Arabia began to confiscate large consignments of the drugs coming in by land, meaning via Jordan and probably from Syria and Lebanon,” said Suhail Al-Ghazi, a Syria researcher.
Use of captagon in the Middle East appeared to decline after Saudi Arabia and the UAE expelled large numbers of suspected Hezbollah supporters in 2011 and 2012, which while condemned by human rights groups, could be linked to the drugs trade, Al-Ghazi said.
The Syria war saw a resurgence in captagon's use and production with opposition fighters popping pills to cope with hours of gruelling frontline fighting until discipline issues led Free Syrian Army commanders to ban their use.
Islamic State group militants also had a penchant for the drug, and in many parts of the Middle East captagon is still associated with the jihadists.
Yet it was in Syrian regime areas where the drug would proliferate with production on an industrial scale and smuggling operations as sophisticated as any mafia enterprise.
"Production and export of the drug are believed to centre on a belt of Syrian border regions controlled by the Fourth Division, a myriad of militias and armoured units led by Bashar Al-Assad's ruthless younger brother"
By 2019, customs officials in Saudi Arabia again began to uncover large numbers of captagon pills hidden in boxes of pomegranate and other fruit coming in from Lebanon and Syria, via Jordan.
"When the Syria-Jordan border reopened, we began to see huge amounts of captagon being seized in Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, almost all coming in by land, and later by sea to Italy and Malaysia. All this pointed to Syria," said Al-Ghazi.
"The Italian consignment, for example, came from the Port of Latakia, the biggest port in Syria and under the tight control of the Assad family. When Italian authorities said it came from ISIS, nobody believed them."
Other indicators of the Syrian origin of the pills were the unique L-shape symbols found on the packaging. Nobody seems to know the reason for this branding, but it appears dealers and customers use it to distinguish it from Lebanese products.
Syria, a former regional hub for pharmaceuticals before the war, has become perhaps the Arab world's biggest exporter of captagon, eclipsing even Lebanon's production.
"Syria was one of the biggest pharmaceutical producers in the Middle East, which was obviously a good thing, but then the factories around Aleppo were bombed or looted," said Al-Ghazi.
"Because of this there are shortages of medicines in Syria or factories have been forced to produce something else, so state-owned, or linked, factories are now hugely involved in the production of captagon."
Imports and exports in Syria, in particular pharmaceuticals, have always been closely monitored by the regime, making it impossible for the drug to be mass produced and shipped out without the knowledge of Syrian intelligence, Ghazi added.
Syria's huge demand for the precursor pseudoephedrine - a key ingredient in captagon - is another indicator of regime involvement.
In 2020, Syria's requirement for the chemical surpassed the UK's and was around half of Switzerland’s, the second bigger pharmaceutical exporter in the world, according to the Newslines Institute. Quality varies from grade-A clear white products to inferior in quality yellow-brown pills.
Production and export of the drug are believed to centre on a belt of Syrian border regions controlled by the Fourth Division, a myriad of militias and armoured units led by Bashar Al-Assad’s ruthless younger brother Maher.
"The Fourth Division is heavily engaged in this trade - not only guarding captagon production facilities but also carrying out many of the trafficking operations themselves," Caroline Rose, head of the Power Vacuums Program at the Newslines Institute and a leading researcher on the captagon trade, told The New Arab.
One clash with Jordanian border guards involved as many as 200 armed smugglers, with sophisticated equipment that only the Fourth Division and their Iran-aligned allies could possess.
"This isn't an independent smuggling operation carried out by some local kids in southern Syria, or even a terrorist organisation in the area, it had to be done with the Fourth Division’s involvement given the smugglers’ operational capacities," Rose added.
"The re-emergence of the drug's production in Syria on an industrial scale appears to be setting the country on the path of North Korea, which uses illicit activities as a cornerstone of its foreign revenue sources"
Captagon smugglers have used drones, armoured vehicles, heavy weaponry, and even a microlite that once penetrated deep into Iraqi territory, to get their cargo across the border.
Shipping containers originating from Latakia port have been prized open by customs guards revealing millions of tons of captagon hidden inside and other goods, another tell-tale sign of the Syrian regime's involvement.
An investigation conducted by Christoph Reuter at Der Spiegel identified the packaging used in the Italy smuggling operation and linked the paraphernalia to elements affiliated with the Fourth Division, Rose said.
"The Italy bust originated from the Port of Latakia, which is exclusively owned and operated by the Syrian regime, and of course, with special access offered to Iran and Hezbollah," said Rose.
"It was an impressive seizure. There was no way that the Syrian interior ministry and the port authorities had no idea that these cylinders contained captagon. It was just too big for them not to know."
The re-emergence of the drug's production in Syria on an industrial scale appears to be setting the country on the path of North Korea, which uses illicit activities as a cornerstone of its foreign revenue sources.
The occasional publicised drug bust by Syrian police does little to detract from the widespread belief that the regime is complicit in one of the most extensive captagon manufacturing operations in the world.
For many Syrians, the drug has become a dangerous way to cope with the trauma of war, drudgery of life, and incessant hunger.
"There is little appetite among western countries to curb the Al-Assad regime's role in the production and proliferation of narcotics, primarily captagon"
'Transnational security threat'
So far, the US has not sanctioned one Syrian for the production or export of captagon, while Arab states appear determined to pursue normalisation with the regime despite the drug's explosion in the Gulf.
"There is little appetite among western countries to curb the Al-Assad regime’s role in the production and proliferation of narcotics, primarily captagon," said Karam Shaar, the Syria programme manager at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks.
"They do not believe they have much power to influence what is happening in Syria and to a certain degree I agree with them."
US sanctions have been more aimed at sending a message domestically and to its European allies that it is still concerned with the plight of Syrians.
"These sanctions are not intended for behavioural change, or to curb human rights violations, and the same goes with captagon,” Shaar said.
A lack of real knowledge and intelligence about captagon production and smuggling networks could be another hurdle for the US.
"This is the kind of knowledge that is starting to build up and I expect this to change as more evidence emerges," he said.
Despite this, the House Foreign Affairs Committee gave the green light to a draft law addressing the Syrian regime's role in the captagon trade.
The proposed bipartisan resolution could see Syria recognised as a "major illicit drug producing" or "major drug-transit" country and the captagon trade as a "transnational security threat".
An upcoming Arab League meeting will likely see members discuss Syria's readmission and the issue of captagon will undoubtedly feature in discussions, giving the regime a key bargaining chip.
Just as the Caesar Sanctions have not stopped the Syrian regime's horrific human rights abuses, analysts question whether the US has the muscle or will to tackle the captagon trade seriously.
Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin