The little white pill known as Captagon has given Syrian President Bashar Assad significant leverage with his Arab neighbors, who are seeking to stop the flow of highly addictive amphetamines out of Syria. This has led some Arab countries to bring Assad out of pariah status in the hopes of achieving this goal.
Western governments are concerned that the reconciliation with Assad will undermine efforts to end Syria’s long-running civil war. However, for Arab states, stopping the Captagon trade is a top priority. Over the years, hundreds of millions of pills have been smuggled into Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Arab countries, where they are used recreationally and by those with physically demanding jobs to stay alert.
Saudi Arabia has intercepted large shipments of pills hidden in crates of fake plastic oranges and in hollowed out pomegranates — even pills crushed and molded to look like traditional clay bowls.
Analysts say Assad likely hopes that by making even limited gestures against the drug he can gain reconstruction money, further integration in the region and even pressure for an end to Western sanctions.
The vast majority of the world’s Captagon is produced in Syria, with smaller production in neighboring Lebanon. Western governments estimate the illegal trade in the pills generates billions of dollars.
The United States, Britain and European Union accuse Assad, his family and allies, including Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, of facilitating and profiting from the trade. That has given Assad’s rule a massive financial lifeline at a time when the Syrian economy is crumbling, they say. The Syrian government and Hezbollah deny the accusations.
Syria’s neighbors have been the biggest and most lucrative market for the drug. As the industry flourished, experts say Damascus in recent years saw Captagon as more than just a cash cow.
Analysts believe that even limited gestures against Captagon smuggling could provide Assad with an opportunity to gain reconstruction funding, further integration in the region, and pressure for an end to Western sanctions against his regime.
The vast majority of the world’s Captagon is produced in Syria, with smaller production in neighboring Lebanon. According to Western governments, the illegal trade in these pills generates billions of dollars annually.
The United States, Britain, and European Union accuse Assad, his family, and allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, of facilitating and profiting from the trade. They allege that this gives Assad’s regime a significant financial lifeline at a time when the Syrian economy is collapsing. However, the Syrian government and Hezbollah deny these accusations.
Experts suggest that as the Captagon industry flourished, Damascus began to view it as more than just a source of revenue, but also as a means of gaining political leverage and support among its Arab neighbors. As such, halting the Captagon trade could potentially provide Assad with an opportunity to strengthen his position in the region.
Karam Shaar, a senior fellow at the New Lines Institute in Washington, notes that “the Assad regime realized that this is something they can weaponize for political gain… and that’s when production started being on a large scale.”
Halting the Captagon trade has been a key demand of Arab countries in their negotiations to end Syria’s political isolation. After being suspended from the Arab League in 2011 due to Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters, Syria was readmitted last month. On May 20, Assad received a warm welcome at the Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Assad’s growing influence in the region, fueled in part by his willingness to take action against Captagon smuggling, has frustrated Western governments who worry that it could undermine efforts to end the Syrian civil war and bring about political change in the country.
Some experts and activists believe that a recent strike on a suspected Captagon factory outside the city of Daraa, near the Jordanian border, and the destruction of a drug kingpin’s home in southern Syria, were signs of possible behind-the-scenes trade-offs between Assad and his Arab neighbors.
Merhi al-Ramthan, his wife, and six children were killed in the airstrikes on May 8. According to former Jordanian brigadier general Saud Al-Sharafat, Assad had given assurances that he would stop supporting and protecting smuggling networks. Activists believe that Jordan, with the approval of Assad, was likely behind the strike, which occurred the day after Syria was formally readmitted to the Arab League, a step that Jordan helped broker.
Some experts suggest that these strikes may be part of an effort by Arab countries to pressure Assad to crack down on Captagon smuggling. However, it is unclear whether this will ultimately lead to a significant reduction in the illegal trade in the drug.
Jordan’s former brigadier general Saud Al-Sharafat notes that Jordan perceives the Captagon trade as a “threat to both security and communal peace.” However, Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, declined to confirm or deny whether his country was behind the airstrikes. Safadi stated that Jordan was willing to take military action to combat drug smuggling.
Arab countries, many of which had supported the rebels trying to overthrow Assad, say that they are committed to pushing him to make peace. Prior to the Jeddah summit, Jordan hosted a meeting of top diplomats from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt, with the aim of setting a roadmap for peace talks and the repatriation of millions of Syrian refugees.
During the regional conference, discussions were held on various issues including drug trafficking. However, it was during the Captagon discussion that the most progress was made. Syria vowed to crack down on smuggling and establish a regional security coordination committee. In fact, just days later, Syrian state media reported that police had successfully dismantled a Captagon smuggling operation in the city of Aleppo. The operation resulted in the discovery of 1 million pills hidden in a pickup truck.
In addition, Jordan has been stepping up its efforts to combat drug trafficking. This has included increasing surveillance along the Syrian border and conducting raids on drug dealers. In January, a group of suspected smugglers engaged in a gun battle with Jordanian troops resulting in the death of 27 individuals.
The smuggling routes used by these drug networks have made it challenging to dismantle them. Militias in Iraq’s Anbar province have played a crucial role in the smuggling of Captagon, according to an anonymous member of an Iraqi militia who spoke to the AP. On the other hand, Syrian lawmaker Abboud al-Shawakh denied the government’s involvement in the drug trade and maintained that authorities were putting in significant efforts to combat smuggling activities.
He posited that Syria serves as a regional transit route, and border crossings are out of the government’s control. Al-Shawakh went on to suggest that only armed opposition groups participate in Captagon trading. However, many observers think that Syrian opposition groups have a part in drug smuggling, while Western governments blame Assad’s relatives and allies for directly engaging in Captagon production and trade. As a result, sanctions have been imposed on a group of individuals close to Assad.
Al-Sharafat, an analyst, believes that while Assad might be willing to act against some aspects of the drug trade, it is not in his interest to eliminate it completely without receiving something in return from Arab states.
Currently, Arab states are concerned about the damage Captagon is causing among Saudi youth. Though a Saudi official dismissed rumors that Riyadh had offered Syria billions of dollars in exchange for a crackdown, he acknowledged that the price of whatever the nation might offer would be lower than the harm Captagon has inflicted on Saudi youth.
However, the normalization of relations between Arab states and Syria has raised concerns among the U.S. and other Western governments who perceive it as undermining their efforts to get Assad to make concessions to end Syria’s conflict.
They advocate for Assad to follow the peace roadmap outlined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which was adopted unanimously in 2015. The resolution calls for negotiations with the opposition, the rewriting of the constitution, and U.N.-supervised elections. Such measures would be desirable for the Western powers as they would serve to weaken Assad’s grip on power.
Despite the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, the situation in Syria remains largely unchanged. Since its inception, Assad has reclaimed territories he previously lost, effectively trapping the opposition in a small corner of the northwest. As a result, his grip on power now appears to be firm, even though much of the north and east is under the control of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which enjoys U.S. support.
Assad’s success in restoring much of the country under his control and fending off opposition forces calls into question the viability of the U.N. resolution as a practical way to end the Syrian conflict.
Shaar, the analyst, suggested that Assad could use the Captagon issue as a bargaining chip to try and get the U.N. resolution on Syria shelved. However, gaining other concessions such as lifting Western-led sanctions would prove to be more challenging.
Despite this, Shaar believes that Gulf Arab states could funnel money through U.N.-led projects in government-held Syria to encourage Assad to take action against Captagon. Shaar added that the president would likely engage in political maneuvering with Gulf states to get what he wants.