Drug trafficking is nothing new in the Middle East but the last decade of conflict has given way to a challenge of endemic proportions. In 2021 alone, 250 million narcotic pills were confiscated. That’s 18 times the amount seized just four years ago.
Under Bashar Al Assad’s leadership, Syria has become the focal point for drug manufacturing and export in the region. The Assad regime’s links to the drug business are well-documented and barely concealed, which explains why there has been little public effort by Damascus to crackdown on the booming drug trade. In addition to reaping the financial gains from the drug business, Al Assad is using drugs as a strategic lever against his regional opponents.
Since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, armed groups in Syria have been involved in the drug industry. However, this illicit business didn’t boom until after the regime’s territorial expansion, which peaked in the summer of 2018. In addition to expelling its opponents from the majority of Syria, Al Assad’s victory allowed him to consolidate his grip over most of the border regions with Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, which have become hubs for drug smuggling from Syria.
The territorial shift turned Syria into a narco-state, which is now the global epicenter of Captagon production. Captagon is a stimulant with addictive properties used recreationally across the Middle East. Its ability to boost courage and energy explains why it is also known as “poor man’s cocaine”. As a result of the not-so-secret support from the Assad regime, Captagon is now more industrialised, adaptive, and technically sophisticated than ever. Even the concealment of drug shipments coming from Syria to other countries in the region have become profoundly more sophisticated.
The boom in the Captagon industry could have only happened with the protection of a state, which is demonstrated by the involvement of key regime figures and networks. Chief among them is the 4th 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. The New York Times recently exposed the role of the 4th Division in the drug trade. The division is responsible for the borders with Lebanon and Jordan, which are the primary export points for Captagon pills manufactured in Syria. The 4th Division also maintains a network of checkpoints across regime-controlled areas, which enable it to provide vital protection to Captagon factories and facilitate the movement of drugs across the country.
Several other relatives of the Syrian president are also heavily involved in this illicit business, including Samer Al Assad. Despite being a distant paternal cousin of Bashar, Samer reportedly oversees the majority of Captagon production around Latakia and exercises a high degree of influence over trafficking throughout the Syrian coastal region. The Captagon factory he owns in the village of Al Basa, south of Latakia, which is disguised as a manufacturer of packaging materials, has become an open secret.
Many analysts believe that the profits generated by drug manufacturing and export have become an important revenue stream for the cash-strapped Syrian government. According to various estimates, the street value of seized Syrian drugs, which is a fraction of the total sum, amounted to about $3.4 billion in 2020. Placing relatives and other confidants in positions of authority over the drug trade is a testament to just how valuable the drug trade is for the regime.
There is a geopolitical dimension at play as well. Drugs have become an important bargaining chip for the regime with other countries. For example, the regime could be using drugs to pressure countries to restore ties with Damascus in exchange for curtailing the flow of drugs or diverting them to other countries. In the past, Al Assad skillfully facilitated Jihadist attacks in Iraq and Lebanon to advance his agenda. Al Assad used the same strategy again in Syria during the ongoing conflict to force rival states to back off from supporting his opponents. These well-documented incidents show that the Syrian regime is no stranger to such tactics.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia are the two countries in the region suffering the most from Syria’s drugs. However, other states in the region and Europe are equally concerned. While some of those governments might be tempted to cave into Al Assad to protect their population, they should know that there are no guarantees that the regime will honor it’s end of the deal. That is evidenced by the failure of Jordan’s normalization efforts to curb drug trafficking to its territories.
Moving forward, the regime will likely continue to pocket the concessions made by the drug business without pushing back against his relatives and associates who are managing the country’s emerging drug empire. Instead of giving in, these countries should come together and find a more reliable solution to countering Syria’s drugs and that likely starts at home.
Dr. Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.