Middle East

A little-known drug brought billions to Syria’s coffers. Now it’s a bargaining chip

By Celine Alkhaldi, CNN

Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  —  A highly addictive drug that became Syria’s economic lifeline over a decade of isolation may now be serving as a bargaining chip as it tries to normalize ties with neighboring states, analysts say.

Captagon, a drug that is relatively unknown outside the Middle East, helped Syria turn into a narco-state after much of the international community cut off its economy due to its brutal crackdown on an uprising in 2011.

It is a synthetic amphetamine-type stimulant, fenethylline, which goes by the trade name captagon, and has become the center of an increasing number of drug busts across the Middle East. Experts say the vast majority of global captagon production occurs in Syria, with the Gulf region being its primary destination.

The growth of the industry has raised alarms in the international community. Last year, the US introduced the 2022 US Captagon Act, which linked the trade to the Syrian regime and called it a “transnational security threat.”

After more than a decade of boycotting him, Syria’s Arab neighbors are now in talks to bring President Bashar al-Assad in from the cold. The Syrian leader has been received in some Arab capitals, but he is yet to be awarded the ultimate normalization with Saudi Arabia, one of Syria’s staunchest foes – and the biggest market for its drugs.

Following the deadly February 6 earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria, Saudi relief planes landed for the first time in a decade at regime-controlled airports. And last month, Saudi state media reported Riyadh was in talks with Damascus to resume providing consular services between the two countries.

Analysts say captagon is likely to be high on the agenda in attempts at normalization.

Saudi media has been sounding the alarm lately over the rise in drug use. In September, Saudi authorities announced the largest seizure of illicit drugs in the country’s history after nearly 47 million amphetamine pills were hidden in a flour shipment and seized at a warehouse in the capital Riyadh. Millions more pills have been intercepted since. The UN says amphetamine seizures in the region refer predominantly to captagon.

“Captagon has been touted as a ‘card’ in rapprochement talks between the Syrian regime and counterparts pursuing normalization,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute in Washington, DC, who has studied the captagon trade.

“The regime has been leveraging its agency over the captagon trade, signaling to states considering normalization that they could reduce captagon trafficking as a goodwill gesture,” Rose told CNN.

Exported by several actors, including Syrian smugglers, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and pro-Iranian Iraqi militias, “the captagon smuggling is worth more than Syria’s legal export,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and an expert on the topic. Hezbollah has denied ties to any drug trades.

The United Kingdom, which last month imposed new sanctions on Syrians connected to the trade, said the Assad regime has benefited from the captagon trade to the tune of $57 billion. It described it as a “financial lifeline” for Assad that is “worth approximately three times the combined trade of the Mexican (drug) cartels.”

Syrian state media regularly reports on captagon drug busts, saying that the interior ministry is cracking down on its trade as well as that of other narcotics.

Smugglers ‘get military training’

Salah Malkawi, a Jordanian analyst who follows the trade closely, says that despite Syria’s denial, it is impossible for the drug to cross borders without the involvement of several actors closely tied to Assad and his regime.

“Commanders of militias, security agencies, military forces are involved in the drug smuggling operation,” Malkawi said. “The drugs cannot reach these areas without passing through dozens of barriers and checkpoints that fall under the Fourth Division, which is under the leadership of Maher al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian president.”

“I’ve spoken to several (smugglers),” he said. “They have received military training … using war tactics … to carry out sophisticated raids.”

The Syrian government didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Jordan, which supported anti-regime groups at the start of the Syrian civil war, has in recent months also been on the road to rapprochement with Assad.

Its foreign minister this year made his first visit to Damascus since the start of the Syrian civil war and has been sending humanitarian aid following the February 6 earthquake.

Jordan has been directly impacted by Syria’s captagon trade due to the prevalence of its use in border regions in the northeast of the country, said Saud Al-Sharafat, a former brigadier general in the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate, as well as founder of the Shorufat ِCenter for the Study of Globalization and Terrorism in Amman, Jordan.

“There is also the high cost of securing the borders and the increase in pressure on the armed forces and security services,” Al-Sharafat told CNN.

He welcomed the US Captagon Act as “the first serious international effort” to prevent the regime from expanding its use of the drug “to destabilize security in the region and the world.” Syria could potentially flood Europe and Western countries with the drug through Turkey and use it as a bargaining chip against them, he said.

But even if agreements are reached between Syria and its neighbors over stopping exports of the drug, experts say it is unlikely that Assad will fully abandon the trade.

“That’s asking the key trafficker to stop his business,” Felbab-Brown said. “It is very unlikely that the Assad regime would give up on its crucial revenue source.”

At best, he may offer cosmetic solutions to the problem, experts say, promising tighter restrictions and tougher law enforcement at home on producers and traders, whom the regime denies it is involved with.

Rose of the New Lines Institute said that the regime may maintain its captagon businesses as a form of long-term leverage against its neighbors, while maintaining “some level of plausible deniability with the trade, blaming opposition forces and non-state actors, while undertaking a wave of cosmetic seizures at home to shift the blame away from the government.”

Nadeen Ebrahim contributed to this report.

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