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Captagon: Syria’s drug trade 

Captagon: Syria’s drug trade 


The illegal narcotics business shaping diplomacy in the Middle East

Last week, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, attended the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia for the first time in 12 years. He kissed the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman gently on the cheeks, grinned with Egypt’s president and stood for a photo with the leaders of 400 million people. Slowly but surely, the butcher of Syria is being rehabilitated in the Middle East. Why?

There are many reasons why countries in the Middle East might want to normalise relations with Damascus. Many Arab leaders want to send some of the 5.5 million Syrian refugees in the region home. Another of the key reasons is to try to contain the booming drug trade flowing out of Syria, which is fuelling addiction and violence from Bahrain to Beirut.

Captagon is sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s cocaine”. It is a form of amphetamine which can be easily manufactured with legally imported chemicals. Since Islamic State fighters started using it to stay awake, the little pills have taken the region by storm. And Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is behind it.

The Assad family, who face heavy international sanctions from the US and European Union, turned to the drug to keep their regime afloat. They have turned Syria into what some regard as a narco-state, exporting millions of industrially-manufactured amphetamine pills across the region. In Saudi Arabia, users pay as much as $25 for a pill. Migrant workers use them to stay awake for longer, for wealthier people captagon is a party drug.

Some experts estimate that the global trade is worth as much as about fifty-seven billion US dollars. It’s hard to know just how much money the Syrian regime makes from it, but captagon has become the country’s main export. Around 400 million tablets were seized by the authorities in the Middle East in 2021.

In March this year, the US and the UK imposed sanctions on two of the Syrian leader’s cousins over the trafficking of the drug. The US treasury claims that one of them owns a factory in the Syrian port city of Latakia that produced 84 million captagon pills in 2020. There are serious health impacts from captagon use. Long-term use can lead to extreme depression, psychosis, hallucinations and aggression.

As the region tries to get to grips with the trade, President Assad appears likely to be a more regular fixture on the international stage. The United Arab Emirates has invited him to the Dubai Cop28 to discuss climate change in November. It’s a move which has been condemned by human rights groups who regard President Assad as a war criminal.