Captagon trade linked to Syria's corridors of power, report to claim

Imminent report highlights drug-trafficking networks in which Assad regime and Hezbollah are accused of playing a prominent role

Three men who allegedly tried to smuggle more than 2.2 million Captagon pills were arrested in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Abu Dhabi Police
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Ultimate control of the Captagon drug trade rests with figures who are comfortable in the highest echelons in Syria, a new report on the narcotics industry in the Middle East will claim.

Analysis of Captagon seizure data and supply networks by the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (Open), will shed new light on President Bashar Al Assad associates' alleged involvement in the production and trafficking of the addictive amphetamine.

“The Assad regime controls the bulk of the production,” said Karam Shaar, an economist and co-author of the report, which is set to be published this week.

The UK and US estimate the industry to be worth $57 billion, with 80 per cent of the world’s supply produced in Syria as a source of revenue for the Assad regime. In March, the UK and US imposed sanctions on people linked to the Syrian government over their suspected involvement in the production and trafficking of Captagon.

The report will mention relatives of Mr Assad who have yet to be named by the US or UK in connection with the drug trade, said Mr Shaar, who spoke at Chatham House in London.

The analysis highlights the “explosion” of Captagon in the Middle East compared to other drugs. The largest of 1,251 recorded Captagon seizures in the region to date involved 94 million pills intercepted in Malaysia en route to Saudi Arabia.

The report will chart the suspected supply chain networks, revealing the alleged role of the Syrian Army’s elite 4th Armoured Division and the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which militarily supports the Assad regime.

Curbing the Captagon industry was one of the key points raised at the recent Arab League summit in Jeddah, which Mr Assad attended for the first time in 12 years.

The report will highlight what it calls a two-pronged approach to the regime’s alleged involvement in the drugs trade. “There is a clear division of labour," Mr Shaar said. "The [Syrian] Ministry of the Interior does the arrests and seizures, and the military and security branch and the 4th Armoured Division sponsor the industry."

He said the level of the arrests and seizures reported by the ministry might be exaggerated, while protecting those chiefly responsible for the drug flows.

"An official statement from the Minister of the Interior said that they have arrested 850,000 people, which is 15 per cent of the adult population," said Mr Shaar. "How much value can you put on these claims? There have been arrests [in Syria] but they're all for fringe actors."

This supports the view that the Captagon trade gives powerful leverage to a regime seeking funds for reconstruction after the damage wrought by the civil war, and to end more than a decade of international isolation.

“We need to distinguish between the motivation to supply to meet demand [for the drug], and the use of demand as a way to blackmail for political ends,” said Yaser Tabbara of the Syrian Forum.

But little is known about the drug including its full composition and long-term side effects, experts highlighted.

“What's not being discussed enough are the health effects of Captagon and how it's affecting the individuals and the communities that are buying it,” said Caroline Rose, director of Strategic Blindspots at the New Lines Institute.

Updated: May 23, 2023, 4:30 PM