Captagon crisis: US Congress moves to crack down on Syria-linked drug trade

Experts say bill is first step in building broader international coalition to combat drug smuggling

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Members of the US Congress are increasing the pressure on President Joe Biden's administration to combat the Captagon trade in the Middle East, with a specific focus on the role of Syria.

The Captagon Act aims to develop an inter-agency strategy to “deny, degrade and dismantle [Syrian President Bashar Al] Assad-linked narcotics production and trafficking networks” and would require the co-ordination of the Departments of Defence, State, Treasury and other relevant federal agencies.

Captagon was first manufactured 60 years ago as an alternative to amphetamine and methamphetamine. It was used to treat narcolepsy and fatigue, and was frequently prescribed to US soldiers. The substance was banned in 1981.

Introduced by Congressman French Hill, a Republican from Arkansas, the bill passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support in September and is expected to pass the Senate. If enacted, the law would create a road map for the creation of a more concrete US strategy on the Middle East's growing drug crisis.

Mr Hill told The National that Washington's response to Captagon had been "very siloed".

“The Captagon Act is a bill that asks the United States government to use an all-of-government approach … to think through how do we identify and interdict and stop the trafficking of Captagon and … cut off the funding as a result of Captagon to Al Assad's regime?”

A State Department representative told The National that the administration is working to combat narcotics trafficking through “multiple efforts including traditional law enforcement tools and capabilities”.

“Captagon trafficking remains a serious problem with significant impacts on the region and across the world that we take seriously,” the representative said. “The United States government has numerous authorities to designate those who lead, facilitate or are complicit in drug trafficking and transnational organised crime.”

Experts told The National that US leadership can foster real progress on regional efforts to fight the drug trade.

“This is an issue where the US has a lot of space for proactive action and success, as well as partners,” said Caroline Rose, senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums Programme at the New Lines Institute, who co-authored a sweeping report on the Captagon trade.

“When I think about ways to address the Captagon issue, I think there are a lot of opportunities for the United States to really serve as a force multiplier in the region.”

Mr Hill agreed, and expressed confidence that, should the Captagon Act become law, Washington could make headway in combating the crisis.

The best way to stop this is to stop it early and cut off the head of the snake now
French Hill, US congressman from Arkansas

“We could be that 'force multiplier' due to our knowledge of the banking system, our knowledge of surveillance, of marine and overland traffic, and work with our law enforcement partners, through Interpol, and other areas to interdict and disrupt this with the prime objective of stopping poisoning kids throughout Europe and the Middle East and cut off funding that's backing Al Assad's regime,” the congressman said.

Charles Lister, senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism Programmes at the Middle East Institute in Washington said the US was unlikely to be able to convince the Syrian regime to stop producing drugs and smuggling them around the world.

"But what we can do is force or coerce or encourage, particularly the Middle East, to come together and to discuss and to co-ordinate on this issue together," Mr Lister said.

US bill targets Syrian regime-linked Captagon drug trade

US bill targets Syrian regime-linked Captagon drug trade

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 into an estimated $5.7bn.

But Mr Lister, who has researched Captagon extensively, said the true scale of trade could be as high as $30bn.

“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.”

That rapid expansion and its links to the Assad regime have directly affected Washington's regional interests, said Mr Hill. The congressman highlighted concerns for the regional economy, as well as terrorist financing as key issue areas, but said he also fears the drug's geographic expansion into Europe.

“My concern is that Captagon is not long from our shores,” he said.

“It's fuelling terrorism in Syria, and we want to cut that money off. And we're fearful that the same burdens that families are facing in the Gulf region will spread to Europe and spread to the United States. And the best way to stop this is to … cut off the head of the snake now.”

Ms Rose said there is little evidence to support Mr Hill's concern that Captagon would make its way to the US on a meaningful scale anytime soon, but agrees that the trade's increased scale and recent geographic expansion throughout the Middle East and into the EU is a threat to American economic and anti-terrorism interests in the region.

Her report for the New Lines Institute detailed how production patterns have shifted in Syria from smaller, fragmented operations in rebel-held areas to larger, industrial operations in territories held by the Assad regime. Factions of the regime are “key drivers” of the drug's trade, with ministerial-level complicity in production and smuggling, as the trade is used as a means for political and economic survival amid international sanctions.

“The Assad regime plays quite a prominent role in the Captagon crisis, especially when it comes to production and smuggling inside of Syria,” Ms Rose told The National.

“With growing demand in the Gulf and abroad, [the Assad regime and its allies] really do have a cash cow that can serve as a very solid alternative source of revenue outside of some of the more traditional economic sectors in Syria.”

Ms Rose has called for a more robust international coalition to combat the trade and said the Captagon Act is an important first step.

“It sets the stage for the United States leading an initiative on this issue, and trying to encourage more cross collaboration and transnational attention on this issue with the coalition by first establishing that inter-agency process to monitor Captagon,” she said.

Mr Lister said a broader international response will not happen without leadership from Washington.

“Speaking to European officials on [Captagon], Europe is not going to take the first step unless the US is keen to do so. And whilst the Biden administration continues to kind of ignore this issue … I don't think we're going to get European engagement on it either,” he said.

Mr Hill, who has called the Assad regime in Syria a “narco state” on the House floor, tried and failed last year to put the bill into the US National Defence Authorisation Act.

He said that leaders in Washington working on this issue faced a “steep educational curve”, but have overcome that information gap in the last year.

However, Mr Hill is confident the Captagon Act will become law in 2022 with bipartisan support.

“While you can't be certain in politics or in parliamentary activities until something is complete, I believe there is a strong possibility that this language will be contained and signed into law before the end of the year.”

Updated: October 04, 2022, 6:58 AM