Last week, the US and the UK targeted with sanctions four Syrians and two Lebanese for involvement in manufacturing and smuggling the drug captagon. Those targeted are not random – they are reported to include cousins and relatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian regime has been trying to make inroads in normalization in the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. Yet it is also destabilizing the regime by empowering narco-militias, effectively outsourcing Syria’s economy to drug mafias at the highest levels.
According to the Associated Press, “Captagon is primarily produced in Syria and Lebanon, where packages containing millions of pills are smuggled into Gulf countries, Europe and elsewhere. The trade allegedly has strong ties to Assad and his associates, as well as key ally... Hezbollah.”
This is only the tip of the iceberg
The drug industry could be worth several dozen billion dollars to the Assad regime. While the actual amount may be as low as $10 billion, other estimates have it higher. If it was truly worth the larger figures, that would make the drug industry in Syria worth more than the GDP of numerous poorer countries.
Clearly the Syrian regime, isolated by Western sanctions, is turning to drugs as a way to get around restrictions. Last year, France 24 claimed that the drug trade “has turned Syria into the world’s latest narco-state, and sunk deep roots in neighboring Lebanon as its economy has collapsed.... Captagon is now by far Syria’s biggest export, dwarfing all its legal exports put together, according to estimates drawn from official data by AFP.”
The US has slammed Syria for its involvement in the drug trade. According to a report at DW, Andrea M. Jackie, director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said that “Syria has become a world leader in the production of the addictive captagon, much of which is smuggled through Lebanon. Together with our allies, we will hold accountable those who support Bashar Assad’s regime with the profits of illegal drug trafficking and other financial methods that enable the regime to continue oppressing the Syrian people.”
Middle East Eye has challenged some of the accounts regarding the amount of money involved in this trade, while noting that “the stimulant began to be used widely in Syria during the civil war, and the country has become a major exporter to other markets, primarily in the Middle East and particularly Saudi Arabia.”
Other reports say that a large amount of the drug is produced in Syria and then exported through ports, like in Latakia, around the Middle East and abroad.
Some Gulf states are normalizing ties with Syria; this could give them leverage over the regime to pressure it to stop the drug exports. Considering the fact that cousins and relatives of the Assad regime are estimated to be linked to the trade, it would seem reasonable that the regime receiving a message from countries it is normalizing with that the trade is unacceptable, could pivot its policy.
However, the regime needs money, so it tapped into drug narco-militia trade as a way to get around sanctions, placing itself in a catch-22 situation: It needs money, and it wants normalization.
Syria is normalizing with countries that are being harmed by its very own illegal drug trade. If it cuts down on the trade, it loses money, but if it doesn’t, it could anger some of the countries it wants to work with.
As well, by empowering narco-militias, the drug trade also fuels armed groups, meaning that Syria’s regime threatens the stability of Jordan, with smugglers involved in armed clashes near the Jordanian border, most recently on Friday, and it is not the first time. The drug trade is clearly something that destabilizes Syria and harms its neighbors.