April 13, 2023

IntelBrief: Syria Emerging as Major Narco-State


Bottom Line Up Front

  • Syria is emerging as a narco-state in which regime insiders facilitate production and trafficking of the regionally-popular stimulant Captagon.
  • The Syrian regime’s involvement in the Captagon trade reinforces U.S. insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain isolated.
  • Extensive multilateral sanctions have made the Assad regime dependent on the Captagon trade as a hard currency generator.
  • U.S. sanctions and other counter-narcotics tools are unlikely to have a significant effect because of the Assad regime’s complicity in the Captagon trade and the difficulty of accessing the conflict-torn country.

The imposition of comprehensive U.S. and multilateral sanctions on Syria – intended to weaken the regime’s grip on power – has caused allies of President Bashar al-Assad to search for new revenue sources with which to buy domestic support, build assets outside the country, and protect themselves from clandestine enemies and popular opposition. One new source developed by loyalists and relatives of Assad has been the production and export of an illicit, lab-produced, addictive amphetamine known as Captagon. In contrast to plant-based drugs widely used in the West, such as cocaine, Captagon – banned by the United States and the World Health Organization – is relatively inexpensive and socially acceptable throughout the region. It costs about $1 per pill in Syria – although it can go for up to 14 times more in foreign markets, including the drug’s largest market, Saudi Arabia – is relatively easy to produce and distribute across the region’s porous borders, and is reportedly the Arabian peninsula’s most popular drug.

Because of its scale and ability to counteract the effect of Western sanctions on the Assad regime, the Syria-centered Captagon trade has earned the attention of Western governments who are already opposed to the Assad regime. Notably, however, early media reports found that the drug was being sold by opposition forces as well as those supporting the regime. As Syria has grown into a global leader in the drug’s production of the drug, Der Spiegel reported the country’s Captagon trade was worth $5.7 billion in 2021 – over 60 percent more than the prior year, and more than five times the OECD’s valuation of the country’s legal exports that same year. While seizures of the drug have increased over the years, experts say this trend also reflects a growing trade that is still largely going undetected. Syria’s total trade in the drug may even exceed that of the Mexican cartels’ drug trade (official U.S. government estimates on the value of the Mexican trade vary dramatically, from $5 billion to $39 billion).

There is no evidence that the significant revenue generated by Captagon trafficking is providing any economic benefit to the Syrian population. Instead, Captagon appears to be helping Syria earn the label of a “narco-state” – a state in which the ruling authorities actively facilitate, protect, and depend financially on the drug trade – usually for their own personal benefit and that of the country’s leadership. The Captagon trade is particularly significant to the Syrian economy because its revenue comes in the form of dollars, while U.S.-led sanctions are designed to deny Assad loyalists – many of whom were previously sanctioned by the United States for their roles in repressing Syria’s people – access to dollars and dollar-denominated transactions. Funds received from Captagon trafficking help Assad loyalists pay their supporters, militia forces, and bodyguards, giving them protection from domestic enemies. The New York Times has reported that the Syrian Army’s Fourth Armoured Division oversees the drug’s production and distribution.

On March 28, the United States and United Kingdom announced coordinated sanctions against numerous Assad loyalists and alleged Lebanese partners for involvement in the trafficking, including Syrian businessmen, politicians, militia leaders (including a former Syrian Free Army commander), close associates of the Assad family, and even two of Assad’s cousins. Some have ties to Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah. As sanctions have not caused Assad or his associates to cease repressing the Syrian people, additional economic punishments are not likely to compel them to abandon Captagon trafficking. Syrians involved in the Captagon trade are likely to avoid travel to countries where U.S. or partner counter-narcotics authorities might apprehend them. U.S. policy to isolate the Assad regime diplomatically prevents U.S. and global authorities from working with elements of the Syrian government that might want to cooperate against the Captagon trade.

While the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has a team in Jordan dedicated to tackling the Captagon trade there – in part because Jordanian residents are significant buyers – the absence of U.S. relations with Damascus and the conflict itself, which involves several major regional and outside actors, complicates potential DEA counter-narcotics operations inside Syria. Approximately 950 U.S. military personnel are deployed in eastern Syria, but their priority is to combat the Islamic State terrorist organization and contain Iranian influence - not participate in counter-narcotics activities. While Israel has been conducting frequent strikes on Iran-linked installations in Syria, there are no indications that drug labs or related facilities will be included on Tel Aviv’s future target lists. Some experts also question whether combatting the Captagon trade in Syria will become a significant U.S. priority, noting that the U.S. Department of State did not include Syria in its 2022 list of major illicit drug-producing countries.