Can Biden's Captagon Act destroy Assad's deadly drug trade?

The US President now has the legislative power to go after a lucrative narco-industry that Syria's leader has become increasingly dependent on

Italian authorities in 2020 with drugs produced by ISIS in Syria worth an estimated €1 billion. Fotogramma
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The National Defence Authorisation Act that President Joe Biden signed into law just before Christmas includes a mandate requiring US agencies to target the Captagon drug trade in the Middle East.

The highly addictive drug, which ISIS sold to fund their so-called caliphate and dished out to fighters rampaging across Iraq and Syria, has become such an important source of funding for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's regime that experts say the country has become a narco-state.

Trade in the drug had an estimated value of $3.46 billion in 2020. Based on large-scale confiscations alone, the value of the retail trade appeared to explode in 2021 to an estimated $5.7 billion.

Those estimates are conservative. Some experts believe the actual value could be as high as $30 billion.

“That is 45 times the scale of Syria's entire legal export industry. There is literally no other part of the Syrian economy that matters now, other than Captagon,” Charles Lister, senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programmes at the Middle East Institute, told The National in October.

The Captagon Act, included in the $858 billion defence spending bill, is the first step in developing a co-ordinated approach to tackle trafficking in the amphetamine-like drug, its sponsor told The National.

“We want to see the administration put their best foot forward in designing how they'll pull an all-of-government team together in order to draft this inter-agency strategy,” said Representative French Hill, who introduced the bill to Congress.

“I hope that once we draw a connection between Assad, his family, the military control by him and their production and distribution of Captagon, that we can clearly link that with the United Nations mechanism that's investigating war [and] crimes against humanity in Syria,” the Republican congressman added.

Initially at least, it’s unclear what the new strategy will look like. It will include input from several agencies including the State Department, Treasury and the Pentagon, but the White House has not outlined any specific steps.

A National Security Council representative told The National that the new law is “another element” of Washington's “global leadership” in addressing illicit drug production, but did not comment on how it could affect Washington's approach to Captagon.

“The NSC would strongly support the work already under way in the inter-agency to combat the illicit drug trade in the region,” the representative said.

Mr Hill said that he expects the Biden administration to “meet with Congress along the way” in the first few months of 2023 as more specific actions develop, and that the development of a holistic approach is in itself “a major step”.

Caroline Rose, a Captagon expert and senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute, says there is a chance that the Captagon Act “falls flat” on deliverables without more specific guidance.

“The good news is that the amendment isn’t overly ambitious … the challenge of course is whether this strategy will be enough to disrupt the Syrian government’s involvement in the trade as the amendment instructs,” Ms Rose told The National.

Ms Rose believes sanctions, such as the landmark Caesar Act, will be “entertained as an option” as the inter-agency process on Captagon unfolds.

Named after the pseudonym used by the Syrian photographer who smuggled thousands of photographs out of the war-torn country documenting torture in Assad’s prisons, the Caesar Act implemented a sanctions regime designed to promote accountability for the regime’s war crimes.

“The Assad regime relies on this trade as an alternative cash flow amid the economic hit of sanctions, using it as a loophole, so it is likely that US policymakers will seriously examine potential sanctions,” Ms Rose said.

She said that new sanctions are particularly important in addressing those involved in the drug trade with links to the Syrian government that are not yet included in current US sanctions.

Before the Captagon Act, the State Department worked broadly to combat narcotics trafficking, including the use of traditional law enforcement tools and capabilities with regional partners.

“We are using all means at our disposal to combat Captagon,” a State Department representative told The National of current efforts to combat the trade.

The NSC representative said the illicit drug trade is a “regular point of conversation” in White House meetings with regional officials.

The White House pointed to a “well-funded” programme that implemented border security infrastructure upgrades for the Lebanon-Syria and Jordan-Syria borders.

Beirut created border security regiments to staff the US-funded border stations. The effort is focused on the prevention of “nuke, chemical, biological and terror group-type threats”, but has had the additional effect of helping to prevent Captagon shipments, the NSC said.

Ms Rose sees two likely outcomes of the Captagon Act's mandate. The first is to better refine co-operation with regional partners in Europe and the Middle East.

That includes increased “informational exchange for interdictions and monitoring”.

The second is Washington beginning to “seriously account” for Captagon trade-related revenue in the State Department's report on the Assad family’s wealth, which some estimates put as high as $2 billion.

“With an established process and more knowledge about the trade, the US and its partners will be able to take a more public stance and promote accountability among Captagon’s agents,” Ms Rose added.

Mr Hill believes interdiction and funding identification are “at the core” of the Captagon Act's mandate and will lead to increased regional co-operation on the issue.

“Interdiction of the funding … going into the Assad regime will require very thoughtful co-operation with our partners in the Gulf and in Europe,” the congressman added.

Updated: December 31, 2022, 6:19 AM