In mid-December 2018, Greek authorities intercepted a cargo vessel named Noka coming from the Syrian port of Latakia, bound for eastern Libya. The trade freighter was loaded with about six tons of Indian processed cannabis and three million super-strength Captagon pills, together worth 100 million USD. The shipment was—literally and metaphorically—the flagship of the al-Assad regime’s multibillion dollar drug operation, yet only one instance of the illicit Syrian export network that stretches across various countries in the region. 

Captagon is a brand name for the drug compound fenethylline hydrochloride that was originally produced in West Germany in the 1960s as a treatment for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy, and depression. The drug was banned in the 1980s because of its addictive effects, but soon after, counterfeit Captagon pills began to appear in various countries in the Middle East.

A Smuggling Torrent

In recent years, areas controlled by the Syrian regime have witnessed explosive growth in the manufacturing and trafficking of Captagon. With special machinery and dozens of laboratories, the regime has transformed war-torn Syria into one of the world’s leading narcotics enterprises, boasting ports connected to shipping corridors in the Mediterranean in addition to land smuggling routes to Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq—all of which enjoy the protection of the regime’s security apparatus. In reports by major media outlets, the nicknames "narco- state" and "hashish republic" have been given to areas under the control of al-Assad’s regime. 

Over the past two years, investigative reports by major foreign and Arab media outlets, as well as research conducted by specialized monitoring centers, have revealed how the Syrian drug industry facilitates all stages of the production and smuggling process—which includes manufacturing the pills, hiding and packaging them in centers where grains are prepared for export, and finally, smuggling the pills through networks that sell them in foreign markets. The Latakia Port, which has been conducting suspicious missions to transport and export Iranian weapons for years, is the starting point for the transport of narcotics out of Syria.

Images of Jordanian border security officials thwarting attempts to smuggle thousands of pills from Syria have become commonplace in TV broadcasts across the region. In this way, the Syrian regime appears determined to sabotage its relationship with Jordan, its only land gateway to the Gulf states. This comes despite the recent softening in the Jordanian government’s position towards Syria, which seemed to indicate a willingness to turn a new page in relations, at least on the economic front. The fact that Damascus is still pursuing its illegal activities beyond Jordan poses a regional challenge that requires increased attention from regional states and their Western partners. 

Wide Involvement

International sanctions on the Syrian regime played an important role in drying up its financial resources and increasing the government’s desperation to access foreign currency. In order to circumvent this economic distress, Bashar al-Assad, with the help of his relatives, close associates, and military forces, decided to sponsor drug trafficking networks. This decision put Syria—in record time—at the top of the list of drug-exporting countries in the world.

It is no longer a secret that the drug industry in Syria is led by powerful associates of the Syrian regime who oversee the most intricate details of manufacturing and distributing Captagon inside Syria and abroad. It has become clear that the regime’s long-standing reluctance to control the spread of drugs in the country and to stop the trafficking of drugs across the border was actually a plan sponsored by senior figures linked directly to the regime. 

Hezbollah is among the groups operating on Syrian soil to regulate the Captagon trade. Press reports confirm that some areas in which Hezbollah wields great influence, including the Lebanon-Syria border villages, play a key role in smuggling operations. It seems that the Syrian regime decided to draw on the experience Hezbollah has gained (in controlling the production and smuggling of drugs from the Beqaa Valley in the south of Lebanon) to support its own burgeoning Captagon industry.

Investigations conducted by media outlets uncovered that much of the production and distribution inside Syria is supervised by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother—and one of Syria’s most powerful men. According to Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, “the Syrian government appears to use local alliance structures with other armed groups such as Hezbollah for technical and logistical support in Captagon production and trafficking.”

Earnings in Numbers

Captagon is now Syria’s most valuable export product and a key source of income for the regime which is unable to save the economy through either legal channels or licit trade. For Syria, which has been subject to strict American sanctions since 2019, drug trafficking provides an alternative source of income that supports part of its institutional obligations and finances its ongoing war. The regime sells one pill of low-quality Captagon for one USD inside Syria, while the higher quality pills are exported to foreign markets where they trade for approximately 14 USD each.

A report by the German magazine Der Spiegel estimated the total value of the drug shipments sold by the al-Assad regime in 2021 at approximately 5.7 billion USD. Furthermore, in 2020, Syria Report, a website specializing in business and economics, noted that the expanding volume of Syrian drug exports and the shrinking of its legitimate trade activities combine to make drugs the most important source of foreign currency in Syria. The volume of seizures conducted by border officials of countries that intercept drug shipments from Syria provides a window into the scope of the trade that has exploded in recent years. 

However, with border countries on high alert for drug shipments from Syria, the al-Assad regime has been forced to resort to innovative methods to hide and transport the drugs. Captagon pills and cannabis palms have been found hidden in packages of milk, cardboard rolls, and egg cartons. They have also been found buried in shipments of tea, milk, and fresh fruit.   

Conclusion

For years, the Syrian people in areas controlled by the regime have been living in an abyss, relentlessly crushed by hunger and war, while the regime’s machines crush toxic substances to produce Captagon pills that make Bashar al-Assad and his cronies rich. 

Unfortunately, al-Assad, who did not hesitate to poison his own people with addictive narcotics, now aims—with the help of Iranian-sponsored militias—to flood the world with Syrian-made drugs. Attempting to dissuade the al-Assad regime from pursuing its lucrative drug trade is no longer a viable option. Rather, it remains the duty of those affected to contain and combat this problem before it is too late.

Taim Al-Haj is an investigative journalist and the author of in-depth reports on Syrian affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @taim_alhajj