With the Captagon trade becoming an increasingly vital tool for Assad, the Risk team’s latest article considers the geostrategic impact of the trade on the region and beyond.
The Syrian Civil War, now in a ceasefire since 2020, is ongoing in a minor capacity with scattered and intermittent clashes still taking place. The financial source of the Syrian government’s success is in part due to the production of the amphetamine Captagon. Captagon was first produced in the 1960s in Germany as a product to treat ADHD, but it has since been banned globally. 80% of Captagon production is now in Syria, from where it is exported predominantly to Lebanon to be smuggled elsewhere. Sanctions spearheaded by the US have forced the Syrian government to turn to multiple streams of illegal income including Captagon, arms dealing, and other illegal goods smuggling. Although the Captagon trade is incredibly lucrative, the Assad government may be moving away from it in some capacity due to Syria’s recent reacceptance into the Arab League. Saudi Arabia – a major Captagon consumer – has expressed its concerns about the Syrian government’s links to the drug. Nonetheless, the trade still retains financial, political and security influence across the region. Monitoring the Captagon trade allows Western observers to consider security within Syria as well as Damascus’ relationships with other powers both globally and regionally.
Relation to Civil War and Security in Syria
The Captagon trade has been one of the main financial drivers of Assad’s success to regain control. Revenue from Captagon has gone to either Assad and his inner circle or to fund the 4th Armored Division – a separate fighting force of the Syrian state that remains loyal to Assad directly. This revenue stream has allowed government forces to largely defeat Islamic State (IS) and other anti-regime forces, bringing the ceasefire into effect. The tightness of the regime’s grip means that the chances of outright fighting have dropped, making much of Syria comparatively safer than at the height of the civil war. (However, stability in the region is relative as most of the country is still under the control of an authoritarian leader responsible for the death of half a million of his citizens and the displacement of millions of others).
Years of civil war have left the country’s internal security structure largely inoperable. Captagon’s funding of the 4th Armored Division as a dominant security force has largely converted the security threat from civil war battles to organised criminal violence that has flourished under the Assad regime. Although Assad remains in power, much of the regional security is delegated to, or assumed by, other loyalist groups. This patchwork of military and militia factions is prone to corruption, with an EU report claiming the Syrian army can no longer be considered coherent. The 4th Armored Division has been the main driving force of security on behalf of the government: its funding, which is linked closely to Captagon, further highlights the significance of the trade to Assad and security on the ground. General corruption, as well as the 4th Division’s loyalty to Assad, have enabled Captagon smuggling and production to thrive. This has led to regular drug related violence between trafficking groups as well as clashes with local police forces. This predominantly takes place in the Daraa region in the south of the country, where since early 2023, the number of attacks has risen to 119, which left 90 people dead.
Radical Islam links and other non-state actors:
The Captagon trade has links to radical Islamist groups such as Hezbollah and, at its height, IS. These links to radical groups alter the security in Syria and its border areas, as they are well armed and known to have been involved in both the Captagon trade, and the civil war. IS had little to do with production, as this takes place in government-controlled territory. However, IS militants were one of the main consumers of the drug in Syria and Iraq, as it allows users to stay awake and fight without fear. Hezbollah denies links to the Captagon trade despite evidence to the contrary. Dr Lina Khatib, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, writing for Chatham House, explains how Hezbollah has bought land on the Syrian border in order to move Captagon products out of Syria towards the smuggling networks leading into the Gulf States and elsewhere. This land acquisition highlights the security issues that run along the Syrian-Lebanese border and shows that with any form of smuggling comes inherent security risks. The lucrative opportunities for non-state actors to fund their operations are linked closely to Captagon: this breeds an air of insecurity that affects all strata of society.
There is a real danger of kidnap and ransom in the region due to the organised crime that has exploded because of the Captagon trade across the south of the country. This has been reported over the last few years but 2023 has shown no change in the trend, with North Press Agency (a local Syrian news agency) reporting ransom cases in April 2023. Where this used to be undertaken mainly by IS, North Press agency now refers to “unknown gangs”, suggesting an organised crime operation, showing how Captagon has changed the nature of security threats in Syria.
The importance of the Captagon trade to security in Syria has had two distinct but opposing outcomes. It has allowed for greater government success in the civil war, but at the price of rampant drug related violence on the borders with Lebanon and Jordan in particular. The Captagon trade’s financial tendrils have put money into the pockets of a litany of different groups in the region, meaning it can be linked to many different security scenarios. However, the majority of this metaphorical gold mine ends with the Assad family. This is why the trade is so instrumental in Syrian politics and security issues in the current climate.
Geopolitcal / Wider Security
The importance of Captagon to the Syrian regime impacts Damascus’s relationships on the geopolitical stage in four important ways. Firstly, Syria’s relationship with the regional powers in the Arab League. Secondly, Syria’s allies Russia and Iran who view the normalisation of Assad as a geopolitical victory. Thirdly Israel, who while officially neutral on the matter, is a major regional power and as a consequence affects Syria greatly; and finally, the US and the West who have spearheaded sanctions on the country.
Saudi Arabia and others have accepted Syria’s re-entry into the Arab league with caveats. They have insisted on a crackdown on the Captagon trade along with the safe return of Syrian refugees. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has doubled down in its efforts to combat the Captagon trade, banning Lebanese agricultural imports as of 2021 due to Captagon smuggling into the kingdom. This shows the importance of Captagon for Saudi Arabia when dictating its regional foreign policy and consequently how important it is to Saudi Arabia that Syria cracks down on the Captagon trade. This will affect Assad’s normalisation in regional politics. Jordan, an important member of the Arab league and a transit country for Captagon, altered its rules of engagement along its border with Syria when smugglers found to be transporting the drug killed a Jordanian Army captain in 2021 in a firefight. This incident shows a change of narrative between Damascus and Arab League members as Syria returns to regional politics. These policies highlight the significance of the Captagon trade in geopolitics during a period when the Assad regime is undergoing normalisation with other Arab nations after 12 years of exile: Captagon has become a buzzword issue with the Arab League members.
The Captagon trade is a consequence of the heavy sanctions on Syria due to the civil war. In line with the West, sanctions have been the Arab League’s policy towards Syria for the majority of the civil war. Normalisation has shown the complete foreign policy change of the Arab League in response to the failure of sanctions to remove Assad from power. Paul Salem, director and CEO of the Middle East Institute, makes a nuanced point in that normalisation is war by other means. The failure of isolation and sanctions intended to remove the Assad regime from power has led to a new policy of “keep your enemies close” by the Arab League. In doing this, Saudi Arabia and its partners have the ability to put pressure on Assad to repatriate refugees and crack down on the Captagon trade in exchange for the normalisation of Syria on the geopolitical stage. The on-the-ground effects could increase stability in Syria and see a return of refugees to the country, provided that the right pressure is put on Assad in the right places. However, there is little evidence thus far to suggest Syria will move away from the Captagon trade. The cash cow has worked well for Syria during its isolation and will be difficult to decouple from. The return of refugees and the crackdown on the Captagon trade is nonetheless the aim of normalisation by the Arab League. This realpolitik approach by Saudi Arabia and its allies provides friction with the US and the West. However, normalisation between Syria and members of the Arab League could be a pragmatic solution to a complex problem.
Russia and Iran:
Both Russia and Iran’s backing of Damascus throughout the civil war provided a large cash flow to the Assad regime: the financial stream of Captagon has provided support in addition to this funding. From the perspective of Tehran and Moscow, the survival of the Assad regime is a geopolitical win made even more significant with the backdrop of the Ukraine war. With Russia bogged down in the Donbas, Putin’s strongman persona has been almost destroyed: the survival of the Assad regime is a foreign policy win for Putin that helps repair this image, by demonstrating that he can have an impact where the West cannot. Russia has little to no input on the Captagon trade but still gains from its success in terms of its foreign policy. Russia also achieves another foreign policy aim of access to warm water ports and military bases in the eastern Mediterranean. Tartus is the main Russian access port on the Syrian coast, helping project Russian power at a time when it seems to be at its weakest.
For Iran, Syria’s reacceptance into the Arab League puts a counterweight against Saudi Arabia back into regional politics to help achieve Tehran’s foreign policy aims of countering Riyadh in regional politics. Captagon’s role in this for Iran is financial, similar to Russia. Captagon is an alternative financial stream for Hezbollah and other militia groups seeking to achieve Iran’s foreign policy aims of curbing Saudi and Israeli regional power and keeping the US out of regional politics. This significance of Captagon further highlights its importance at the centre of geopolitics in the Middle East. The Captagon trade, therefore, is of little direct concern to Russia and Iran but is a useful financial tool that they can use to keep an ally in power and sway regional politics to their needs once more.
Israeli-Syrian relations are combustible at the best of times but recent rocket attacks by Israel on Iranian-backed militias in Syria have brought relations to a recent low. Captagon’s role in this relationship is twofold. Firstly, Israel is not immune to Captagon within its own borders, with pills having been seized from smugglers en route to the Gaza Strip. This will no doubt have its own internal political consequences for Israel. The second part is the Captagon trade’s relations with Iranian-backed militias. There have been no official statements from the government of Israel on Captagon; however, the links to Iranian militia groups are likely to have piqued Israel’s interest. For Israel, the suppression of the Captagon trade is a possible alternate mechanism for achieving its foreign policy aims in Syria, the predominant one being the removal of Iranian-backed militias who threaten Tel Aviv with rocket attacks.
The US and the West:
Syria’s relations with the West, but more specifically the US, are key factors as they dictate Syria’s ability to access the global market. The Arab League’s normalisation of relations with Syria is in stark contrast to the sanctions imposed on a violent dictator by the West. The Western sanctions placed on Syria look unlikely to change (despite a 180-day temporary easing to allow earthquake relief aid to enter Syria that was announced in February). For Syria, this poses a difficult question: does Assad go further into the arms of Russia and Iran to gain access to legitimate sources of income, or keep its options open and move towards the Arab League and normalisation? The sanctions aimed to remove Assad have generated the quasi-narco state that exists now. This only compounds the reasons for Western sanctions to continue. The US and UK have also imposed sanctions upon members of the Assad family with connections to the Captagon trade in an effort to crack down on the practice. With no end in sight to the sanctions, Assad’s old allies Iran and Russia are the obvious answer for him to remain in power. This is contrary to Western interests in the region, which are to remove Assad and counter Tehran’s geopolitical leverage. This is the argument cited by anti-sanction proponents in the West. Sanctions keep the Captagon trade alive as Assad has no legitimate means of earning money. This shows a fundamental problem with Western neo-liberal foreign policy but more importantly, further highlights the significance of the Captagon trade in geopolitics.
The possible expansion into Europe and other markets is a concerning problem for the future. Since Syria has been accepted back into the Arab League, Saudi Arabia and others have raised the Captagon trade as a major issue. Assad, who denies links to the trade, may force those involved to move the markets away from the Gulf in a political move to smoothen Syria’s normalisation back into the political sphere. Italy in 2020 seized €1 billion worth of Captagon bound for Libya. Although bound for North Africa, this seizure proves the routes to continental Europe are already established. The Gulf markets are over-saturated, adding further incentive to move the markets elsewhere. Land routes through Turkey towards the Balkans have been uncovered, albeit in small quantities. The problem this poses for geopolitics comes with the prospect of further EU sanctions should the Captagon trade move further northward. The EU sanctions currently target members of the Assad family related to oppression and the Captagon trade. If Captagon was to become an issue that affected European shores more directly it would not be a stretch to see the sanctions extend even further. Of the limited export capacity Syria still has, a large chunk goes toward EU countries. This could have even more detrimental effects on the Syrian economy forcing them further into black market trade.
More recently, Captagon exportation has seen a shift to Iraq. The new land route skirts Jordan to provide an alternate route into the Gulf markets. Well established maritime routes for opioids in the region could see Captagon take advantage of the Persian Gulf as a distribution network. This would affect British and US military operations in the area (the Royal Marines having seized millions of pounds’ worth of opioids in the Strait of Hormuz over the last half a decade). While it is unlikely that the trade will reach that far any time soon, Captagon may affect the US and British naval fleets in Bahrain, and Western operations in the Gulf may see Captagon turning up in greater volume.
Captagon’s lucrative capacity has caused it to be linked to every part of Syrian society and therefore politics. This is the most important point about the Captagon trade. The Captagon trade is an important revenue stream for the Assad regime that has allowed the government to remain in power towards what looks like the end of the civil war. The security situation has therefore changed due to Captagon. While it has aided in bringing stability to the civil war, Captagon has brought its own new security issues, such as smaller, more sporadic fights in smuggling-related clashes. The trade’s links to radical Islamist groups and Iranian-backed militias have hindered Syria’s already poor global image and have on-the-ground effects on security. The wider geopolitical issues associated with trade are equally important. The geopolitical quandary of Middle Eastern politics is deeply tied to the Captagon trade. With so many different states involved, each with their own agenda, a solution to Captagon and stability in Syria is incredibly difficult to find. The fact that stability in Syria is so difficult to achieve and Captagon is so integral to the problem highlights the prevalence of the Captagon trade in geopolitics. The Captagon trade has shown its potential problems for the EU and other markets. This shows that Captagon is not a problem that is going away anytime soon despite Arab League members’ efforts to end the practice.
Impact on Travellers
The relevance to travellers is how Captagon will prolong instability in the region by changing the reason for the instability. Where instability was previously due to civil war, Captagon has changed this to drug related violence. The other possible way Captagon will affect travellers in the future is the changing of smuggling routes and markets. The markets’ shift towards Europe is a possible long-term problem with the short-term being alternate smuggling routes into the Gulf states. Captagon is worth too much to too many different groups to see it fade out of existence. Therefore, it will remain a persistent problem for regional politics for a while to come.
Author: Oliver Stewart, Associate Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
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