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How did Europe help Syria become a bigger drug dealer than Mexico’s cartels?

A Saudi customs officer opens imported pomegranates, as customs foiled an attempt to smuggle over 5 million Captagon pills in 2021.
A Saudi customs officer opens imported pomegranates, as customs foiled an attempt to smuggle over 5 million Captagon pills in 2021. Copyright AP/AP
Copyright AP/AP
By Joshua Askew
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Captagon, a little-known upper, creates three times more trade for Syria's regime than the Mexican cartels combined, according to official figures.

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You’ve probably never heard of it.

But a highly-addictive, amphetamine-like drug called Captagon has swept through the Middle East.

The UK government estimates 80% of it is produced in Syria, generating “approximately three times the combined trade of the Mexican cartels” for Assad’s regime.

But how did this come to be? And what even is Captagon?

A wide variety of people across the Middle East use Captagon, which can be sold in pill or powder form.

Students take it for productivity; taxi, lorry drivers, and even soldiers use the drug to stay up and perform in their jobs, while those facing food insecurity seek out Captagon to stave off meals, explains Caroline Rose, Director of the New Lines Institute.

It is reportedly fuelling the Gulf's party scene, thanks to its euphoria-inducing qualities - all without the stigma of other drugs like heroin or cocaine.

Captagon itself was developed in Germany during the 1960s as a pharmaceutical remedy for ADHD, narcolepsy and depression.

One of its active ingredients, fenethylline, was later blacklisted by the UN in 1986, leading most countries to discontinue it.

AP/AP
Syrian authorities displayed busted Captagon pills.AP/AP

However, new production hubs soon sprung up in Bulgaria, with counterfeit tablets smuggled by Turkish gangs to the Middle East, according to a 2018 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction.

When authorities here began cracking down on Captagon – or Abu Hilalain (father of the two crescent moons), as it is sometimes referred to in the Middle East - during the early 2000s production migrated to Syria.

Fast forward to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and production skyrocketed. 

“The political and security vacuum that emerged within Syria's civil war and resulting economic collapse created ample space for illicit economies like Captagon to thrive,” Rose tells Euronews.

She described the trade as a “key alternative revenue stream” for the Syrian regime and its allies looking to dodge Western sanctions and “sustain local power structures”, especially in the south.

‘Assad turned Syria into a drug farm’

Alarm bells have started to sound over the last few years.

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While it is difficult to calculate the exact effect of Captagon on Middle Eastern society, owing to a shortage of data, it is becoming a key concern in the region.

“Drugs are one of the scourges of society as they destroy it, especially in the Middle East whose youth suffer from unemployment in light of collapsing economic conditions due to the policies of rulers,” Taim Alhajj, a Syrian investigative journalist, tells Euronews.

“Senior members of the Assad family are producing drugs in an organised manner with the aim of making money and plunging young people more into corruption in order to keep them away from claiming their usurped rights.”

“Drugs are the key to a large door of crime in any society, let alone in a country like Syria that lives in a state of security chaos,” he added.

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Still, Syria is not alone.

In late August 2022, Saudi authorities made their largest-ever anti-narcotics operation, busting 46 million amphetamine pills hidden in a shipment of flour.

Jordan foiled an attempt to smuggle 16 million Captagon tablets in February that year - more than the entire amount seized in 2021.

Making matters worse Rose says most Middle Eastern states lack proper rehabilitation and harm reduction systems, besides public awareness campaigns.

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This is particularly apparent in Syria.

Despite the regime and its allies reaping billions from the trade, Rose says there is “little evidence Captagon revenues are being injected into Syrian public sectors.”

Murky money is instead lining the pockets of “kingpins” and helping to maintain the “momentum of Syria’s security apparatus” in its ongoing battle against rebels, funding recruitment and supply, she adds.

It is also a crucial bargaining chip for the country's embattled and isolated Bashar al-Assad, with the topic featuring in diplomatic talks between Arab countries trying to normalise ties.

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“The drug trade and smuggling have become a political pressure card with which Assad uses for negotiations,” says investigative journalist Alhajj.

In May, Damascus agreed to cooperate with Jordan and Iraq to identify sources of drug production and smuggling. A week later a high-profile Syrian drug smuggler and his family were reportedly killed in an alleged Jordanian air raid in southern Syria.

Europe’s part in the Captagon saga

Yet the Syrian regime is not the only one benefiting.

Europe is involved in the trade and production of Captagon as a “key bouncing-off point” for shipments of the drug, according to Director of the New Lines Institute Rose.

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Smugglers seeking to reduce suspicion of shipments dispatched from Syrian regime-held territories will smuggle tablets first to European maritime ports or set up shell companies further inland to re-route shipments back into destination markets,” she explains.

“By having the Captagon route through Europe... smugglers are trying to improve the credibility of their shipments and reduce the chance of inspection,” Rose adds.

Inevitably some of these illicit drugs have found themselves in European markets.

“Without a doubt, organised gangs in European countries [are] working in coordination with the Assad family to deliver drugs to Europe,” says Alhajj.

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Italian police in 2020 seized some 14 tonnes of Captagon pills worth around €1 billion euros, describing it as the world’s single largest operation of its kind.

Thanassis Stavrakis/Copyright 2017 The AP. All rights reserved.
Captagon seized among other illicit items in Greece, 2017.Thanassis Stavrakis/Copyright 2017 The AP. All rights reserved.

Tackling Captagon, like most other illicit drugs, requires a multipronged solution, both experts say.

In the short term, Rose suggests “communication between transit and destination countries of the Captagon trade” must be improved.

“There needs to be greater intelligence-sharing and coordination over a counter-Captagon strategy,” she tells Euronews, cautioning against “direct collaboration with the Syrian regime” that uses its control over the trade to “enact concessions”.

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Alhajj says systematic solutions need to be found to tackle the issue in Syria. 

“The Captagon problem is not the worst problem in Syria. The country is living in a state of tyranny thanks to the domination of the Bashar al-Assad family that rules with iron and fire, and has killed… hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.”

“The Assad regime must be ended first… because [that] family is the root of corruption and ruin in this country.”

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