After a decade of bloody civil war that has decimated the population, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, and ruined the economy, the Assad government has turned to the lucrative dirty business of narcotics dealing, turning Syria into a narco-state. 

The business involves the manufacture, sale, and shipping of Captagon, a cheap alternative to cocaine that is a stimulant with addictive characteristics. According to a detailed report by the New York Times, the distribution of Captagon involves people in the highest level of the Syrian government. 

Included in the business are members of the military as well as President Assad’s younger brother Maher Assad, who oversees much of the production and distribution of drugs. He uses his position as the commander of the 4th Armored Division to oversee and protect the drug trade.

The trade of Captagon has spread across the border into Lebanon. There, Hezbollah has quickly taken it up to fill its coffers.

The drug busts of Captagon hidden in legal shipments of food, vegetables, and machinery parts have exploded. Shipments have been seized in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, Greece, Italy, and as far away as Malaysia.

The amount seized by authorities in 2021 was 250,000,000 pills, 18 times the amount seized just four years ago, according to the Times report. However, the number of pills seized worldwide represents just a fraction of the amount of Captagon pills manufactured. Even more concerning to some analysts is the fact that the Syrian government is branching out and dealing crystal meth as well. 

Bashar al-Assad and Maher Assad
Bashar al-Assad (right) and his brother Maher Assad are responsible for the illegal Captagon drug trade. (Reuters)

Since the Syrian government is responsible for the trade, getting any kind of cooperation from it is an exercise in futility. 

“The idea of going to the Syrian government to ask about cooperation is just absurd,” said Joel Rayburn, the American special envoy for Syria during the Trump administration. “It is literally the Syrian government that is exporting the drugs. It is not like they are looking the other way while drug cartels do their thing. They are the drug cartel.”


The Terrorist’s Drug

Captagon or fenethylline was first manufactured by German pharmaceutical companies and was used in the treatment of children suffering from attention deficit disorder and, less commonly, for narcolepsy and depression. 

In 1981, fenethylline was listed as a schedule-I-controlled substance in the United States. In 1986, it became illegal in most countries after being listed by the World Health Organization for international scheduling under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

A cheaper alternative, made with amphetamines, caffeine, and cheap fillers began appearing in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold where hashish is also produced. It began selling for about $1 dollar per pill. The drug is popular in the Middle East, especially among the region’s various militia fighters. The pharmaceutical brand sells for $14 per pill.

The manufacturing facilities are located in empty warehouses guarded by Syrian military forces or in declared closed military zones.

The drug is sent to the port of Latakia where the port and the facilities are heavily under the influence of Samer al-Assad, a cousin of Bashar al-Assad. 

According to other reports, any smuggler who wants to operate in the port must pay a large cut of the profits for protection and for port officials to look the other way. It is there that Syrian regime military and police officials make a show of ostensibly fighting the drug trade by arresting small groups of independent smugglers and confiscating, at times, hundreds of thousands of Captagon pills. What becomes of those pills, however, is open for debate. 

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The minuscule amounts busted by Syrian officials are a drop in the ocean. In 2019, 33 million Captagon pills were caught by Greek customs officials in Piraeus. According to Greek authorities, the pills seized were en route to China via a logistics company, Shenzhen Xiang Sheng Li Trade Co Ltd.

Last year, Italian officials in Salerno found 84 million pills hidden in rolls of paper and metal gears while Malaysian officials discovered 94 million pills inside rubber trolley wheels earlier this year.

Captagon pills seized
Over 127 plastic bags filled with an addictive drug called Captagon lie ready for destruction after being seized by U.S. and Coalition partners in Southern Syria, May 31, 2018. Captagon is commonly known and used by ISIS terrorists, and informally referred to as the “jihadists’ drug”. CJTF-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Brown/U.S. Army)

The Center for Operational Analysis and Research, a think tank that focuses on Syria, recently released a report highlighting the role of Captagon and hashish in Syria.

“Syria is a narco-state with two primary drugs of concern: hashish and the amphetamine-type stimulant Captagon,” the report states. “Syria is the global epicenter of Captagon production, which is now more industrialized, adaptive, and technically sophisticated than ever.”

The report added that Captagon manufacturing was once the cash crop for the various Islamist jihadist groups including the Islamic State, but has been taken over by the Assad government as a means of consolidating control of the country and maintaining the flow of cash for Assad and his close cronies. 

Captagon is now Syria’s main export.