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War on Captagon key to Syria’s return to Arab League

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will attend his first Arab League summit in 12 years in the Saudi Arabian capital of Jeddah on Friday. His government’s controversial return to the bloc comes as Arab states seek to curtail Syria’s thriving trade in Captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine known as the “poor man’s cocaine”. 

The pills are known as “Abu Hilalain” in Arabic, meaning “father of the two crescent moons” due to their two moon-shaped logos. Produced mainly in Syria, the synthetic drug – better known by its trade name Captagon – contains the amphetamine-type stimulant fenethylline.

Over the past ten years, the trade in Captagon has flourished. Millions of these highly addictive pills have flooded the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia.

In a bid to stop Syria’s drug trade – Syria currently produces 80 percent of the world’s Captagon – Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have taken another step towards welcoming Syria’s Assad, a longtime regional pariah, back into the fold.

Assad has been invited to attend the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Friday after a 12-year suspension in the wake of Syria’s 2011 uprising against his regime.

“If there is an official normalisation [of diplomatic relations] on May 19, it will represent the culmination of a process that could not have taken place without the veto lifted by Saudi Arabia, which is the heavyweight of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),” said IRIS associate research fellow and Middle East specialist David Rigoulet-Roze.

Current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is expected to remain in power according to the consensus – if not unanimous – among Arab League members. It’s [only] a matter of determining the conditions and the ways under which this can be done,” he added. 

Arab states want the Assad regime to distance itself from Iran, its longtime ally along with Russia. But above all they are urging Syria to cut the Gordian knot of its flourishing Captagon trade that has turned the country into a bona fide narco-state. 

AFP values the Captagon trade in the Middle East at more than $10 billion. © AFP


“I expected Iran to be top of the agenda along with the repatriation of refugees and the political process – but I have been surprised in how prominent of a role that Captagon is taking amidst negotiations with the Syrian regime over of course Arab League readmittance, but then also broader bilateral, multilateral, coordination efforts,” said Caroline Rose, Director of the Strategic Blind Spots Portfolio and Leader of the Project on the Captagon trade at Washington-based think tank New Lines Institute. 

Captagon has been seen as somewhat as an easy win for many states that are pushing for normalisation … [they] believe that with enough incentives they could convince the Syrian regime to give up the trade,” Rose added. 

According to the New Lines Institute, Captagon generated $5.7 billion (€4.5 billion) in 2021. AFP, however, valued the trade at more than $10 billion. 

Indeed Captagon trafficking came as an economic lifeline for the Assad regime.  The Syrian economy has been grappling with Western sanctions, imposed during the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. 

“[Captagon] was a windfall that was able to offset the devastating economic effects of the civil war and Western sanctions including the US’s Caesar Act passed in December 2019 imposed on the Assad regime,” said Rigoulet-Roze.

Captagon, a lifeline for the Syrian economy 

Although Saudi Arabia supported rebel groups against the Assad regime during the first years of the civil war, it now seems set on normalising ties with Syria.

According to Reuters, Saudia Arabia offered to invest $4 billion in Syriain exchange for a curb in drug exports during Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud’s visit to Damascus in April last month. 

Although Riyadh denied the report, the offer has raised questions over whether it was a goodwill gesture or if the Captagon trade has become a bargaining chip.

“The assumption with this ‘deal’ has been that the Syrian regime has resorted to illicit trafficking because of all of the economic constraints and lack of licit revenue they’ve been able to generate … [Saudi Arabia’s] thought is ‘well we’ll turn on the tapes for illicit trade and they’ll stop’. But that takes a lot of time … a lot of officials that are very closely aligned with the Syrian regime would have no incentive to stop production,” said Rose. 

Although a vast number of people connected to the Assad regime profit from Captagon trafficking and smuggling, “there is still no smoking gun directly linking Bashar al-Assad to the Captagon industry, and we shouldn’t necessarily expect to find one”, said chief Syria analyst Ian Larson from the COAR political risk consultancy in an investigation published by AFP in late 2022. 

“Bashar al-Assad has never uttered the word ‘Captagon’ … but in regard to how he’s connected, he has a number of direct relatives, close friends and very close allies of the regime that are implicated. For example … Maher al-Assad [Bashar’s younger brother], he’s the head of the 4th division [of the Syrian army] and he is very closely involved in both production and trafficking. The 4th division facilitates Captagon trafficking and production particularly in the Latakia region as well as Homs, Aleppo and Southern Syria,” said Rose. 

Syria remains the main producer of Captagon today but the country is just part of a much bigger network operating throughout the Middle East.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah, backed by Iran, was the first to set up Captagon production labs in the early 2000s. The group is still believed to play an important role in protecting the thriving trade along the Lebanese border.

According to a New Lines Institute report, “the Syrian government appears to use local alliance structures with other armed groups such as Hezbollah for technical and logistical support in Captagon production and trafficking”. 

Rehabilitation of the Assad regime? 

However, it’s not clear whether the Syrian regime can afford to give up its Captagon business.

Rose believes the financial stakes are far too high for the actors involved.

“Captagon is a huge source of revenue, the trade is estimated to be worth multiple times larger than Syria’s licit exports and there would be no reason why they wouldn’t want to continue with Captagon production but also while reaping the benefits of licit trade if normalisation does ensue. So I see the regime playing both sides, trying to take advantage of this reopening and trying to encourage sanctions productions and licit trade, but then also continuing Captagon production, saying that they’re conducting seizures and arrests but really, on the inside, continue large scale production and trafficking,” said Rose. 

Although Syria’s reinstatement in the Arab League remains largely symbolic, Assad has made a show of tacking drug smuggling across its borders. After a meeting with the Egyptian, Iraqi, Saudi and Jordanian foreign ministers in Amman on May 1, Damascus vowed to “take the necessary steps to end smuggling on the borders with Jordan and Iraq”. 

A week later, Syrian Captagon kingpin Merhi Al-Ramthan was killed along with his entire family in southern Syria during an air raid believed to be carried out by Jordan. 

“The Damascus regime has been known to undertake certain measures to reassure its Arab neighbours,”said Rigoulet-Roze.

He pointed to “the numerous seizures in November 2021 and the restrictions on exports, especially to Jordan, whose border has been reopened but is susceptible to being overwhelmed by drug trafficking which can potentially destabilise the small Hashemite kingdom that is now engaged in a ruthless fight against traffickers”.

Even countries in the West, which have not yet been affected by the thriving drug trade in the Levant, are taking measures against Captagon trafficking. The US, for example, passed the Captagon Act in December last year. 

“The United States is extremely concerned by how quick normalisation is taking place in addition to the fact that many of these promises could very well threaten existing seizure sanctions on the Syrian economy,” said Rose.   

Meanwhile, countries that are victims of the Captagon trade such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq are more than eager to see the industry shut down, she noted.  

“[But] like any other illicit trade, you’ll never be able to completely stop it. If one actor gives it up, another actor will pick it up. However, that being said, I do think that there is a chance if the regime really would stop it because they’ve the agency to. If they really did halt Captagon trafficking, we would see the trade shrink in a major way because there really aren’t many other actors that could replace the industrial size level of production capacity that the regime has,” added Rose.  

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

This story originally appeared on France24

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