Is Syria becoming the global hub of Captagon production? With an estimated market value of at least $3.5 billion in 2020, the trade of Captagon is said to account for five times the value of the country’s legal exports, injecting substantial foreign currency into the country’s war-torn economy.

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While Damascus may not be the sole producer of Captagon, the Syrian civil war has unquestionably provided a breeding ground for drug trafficking. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, it has served as a lucrative and expedient means for opposition groups to secure funding.

However, as highlighted in an analysis published on July 12, 2021, by Jean-Gabriele de Cambourg, project manager at Geopragma, the regime’s regained territorial influence coincides with its increased control over drug trafficking, encompassing both production and export. Syrian Captagon exports reached a market value of at least $3.5 billion in 2020 according to a report by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR).

The Al-Assad Clan at the top

Most of Syria’s production is now taking place in government-controlled areas. “There are some elements pointing to the involvement of the Assad regime in such operations,” said Laurent Laniel, researcher at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. According to various specialists, these activities are carried out in underground laboratories and factories  given Syria’s historically large military-industrial complex – and are supervised by individuals close to Bashar al-Assad.

At least 15 major factories are engaged in the production of Captagon and other synthetic drugs, according to COAR data. An article published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an alliance of investigative journalists, revealed that Samer al-Assad, the president’s paternal cousin, is reportedly involved in running one of these factories. According to the US Treasury Department, his enterprise, which is based in the coastal city of Latakia, manufactured 84 million captagon pills in 2020. The European Union which imposed sanctions on Samer al-Assad on April 24th. This decision followed similar actions taken by the United States and Britain, including the freezing of his assets.

These drug production facilities are primarily located along the coast or near the border with Lebanon, particularly in the Qalamoun region, west of Damascus. This area, which is known to be a stronghold of the regime, is closely guarded by security forces and falls under the responsibility of General Maher al-Assad, the President’s brother. As the head of the Fourth Division, which has been implicated in numerous human rights violations, Maher al-Assad is believed to oversee Captagon trafficking within Syria.

According to the OCCRP, Maher al-Assad’s influence also extends to the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus, which, with their abundance of official and unofficial ports, have long been a hotbed for the smuggling of illegal goods to and from Syria”. Other individuals within the president’s inner circle, such as his first cousins Fawaz and Munther al-Assad, are also known to be involved in illicit trafficking.

Hezbollah’s complicity

The strategic position of the factories facilitates the export of Captagon. These “regions […], in particular Qalamoun’s mountain regions […], have historically served as crucial routes for trafficking, making them important targets for pro-government militias, notably Lebanese Hezbollah,” explains Jean-Gabriele de Cambourg in his report. Indeed, Syrian Captagon trafficking indicates at least an indirect involvement of Hezbollah, which has increased control in the aforementioned regions. According to COAR, the militia even engages in the smuggling of chemical precursors used in the synthesis of these drugs. Similarly, Laurent Laniel explains: “Lebanese production, as far as we know, is concentrated in the Bekaa region, which is one of Hezbollah’s strongholds. It would therefore be highly surprising if the militia were unaware of the existence of such trafficking, considering its claim to be the leading armed force in Lebanon.

Another strategic region is the Dar’a Governorate (southwest of Syria), which plays a crucial role both as a major drug production hub and the primary transit route for Syrian narcotics (or imported Lebanese narcotics) into Jordan and onwards to the Gulf. In the southern part of the governorate, the busy Nassib-Jaber border crossing is used as a pathway for shipping drugs into Jordan. In response to the surge in trafficking, Jordan has intensified its control measures. On January 27, the kingdom’s military reportedly killed twenty-seven traffickers who were attempting to smuggle drugs into the country. Additionally, on May 8, alleged Jordanian airstrikes targeted Merhi Al-Ramthan, a reputed Syrian drug kingpin, in the Sweida governorate, an area where local patterns of drug trafficking have also been identified.

Just like the surge in Captagon seizures, these events underscore the significant role that Syria plays in the production of this substance. The COAR report states that “in 2020 alone, foreign law enforcement agencies intercepted no less than four shipments of Syrian Captagon, each with an estimated street value of more than $300 million. However, although Lebanon is the first country to acknowledge production within its borders, it is not exempt from the issue. Its authorities have been relatively successful in combating Captagon trafficking. “[They] seized 21,475 kg of Captagon in 2016 compared to 116 in 2010,” says Jean-Gabriele de Cambourg. The primary destination for Captagon is Saudi Arabia, where the pill’s value can reach up to 20 dollars each.


Global Trade

While the focus remains on Syria due to its political and security situation, as well as the scale of its Captagon production, it is crucial to recognize that the Captagon business operates within a broader global trafficking network. “Large quantities of amphetamines are also produced in Europe and exported to the Gulf States,” explains Laurent Laniel. He further highlights that China is the primary source of amphetamine precursors seized in Europe and “suspects a similar trend [in the Middle East].

Moreover, certain European actors are suspected of assisting in the production of Captagon in Syria and Lebanon. Laniel mentions past cases involving a Belgian and a Bulgarian who were identified in Lebanon and played a significant role in the production of synthetic drugs in Europe. As for seizures, “there have also been some in Southwest Asia, particularly in Pakistan. It is also known that Afghanistan is a major producer of methamphetamines,” he concludes.

Overall, the Captagon trade is embedded in global networks involving multiple regions and actors, extending far beyond the borders of Syria and the Middle East.