The Emerging Narco Bloc of West Asia

The manufacture and supply of the flagship drug Captagon in the heartland of Syria are now one of its only business success stories. The long civil war has shattered and dilapidated Syria. The drug cartel has grown so enormous that it has started to challenge the GDP of the Syrian flatlining economy. Its enterprise stretches across Syria, including the manufacturing plants, the plants where they are concealed in packaging, and the smuggling networks.

What is Captagon?

First manufactured in 1961, Captagon was once a legal drug. The idea was to create a milder alternative to amphetamine and methamphetamine. Earlier used to treat brain dysfunction, such as fatigue and narcolepsy. Captagon is popular as a party drug in Saudi Arabia, but its influence goes far beyond the lavish lifestyles of the state’s wealthy elite. Poor Saudis and migrant workers go to work intoxicated in the substance because it is economical, discreet, and less stigmatized than alcohol. The drug’s price ranges from $25 for premium quality to $1 for adulterated versions per pill. The nerve stimulant has resulted in a $10 billion illegal market that was once infamous for its linkages to the fighters of the Islamic State. As Lebanon’s economy has collapsed, it has formed deep ties in the bordering country and turned Syria into the newest narco-state in the world, surpassing the Mexican drug cartel.

How has it penetrated so deep into the country?

Syria is a labor-intensive state, and the market is dominated by labour-intensive jobs such as mining, manufacturing, construction, and petroleum. The formal economy is highly dependent on the working capacity and working hours of the labour force. Continuous civil war since 2011 have made it fatiguing and arduous for the poor Syrians, working chunk to give extensive time and attention at work. This stimulant Captagon, nicknamed “Abu al-hilalain” (two crescent moons), is beloved among the working labour force as it assists them in engaging for long hours; however, they get addicted to it. It has resulted in a growing demand for the pill. Several consumers of Captagon have confirmed with AFP that they use the drug to battle exhaustion and increase their stamina.

The drug has the appearance of medicine and has become the socially acceptable stimulant alternative to Western speed, cocaine, and even liquor in the region. Synthesised in laboratories, the pill is far cheaper and faster to produce than cocaine and easier to distribute because there is less controversy regarding Captagon. The production is economical, and its composition includes widely available legal substances. The pills are hidden inside basic and unsuspecting items while being smuggled across the world, including paper rolls, rubber tyres, machine components, and even inside fruits. This makes it facile to manufacture without legal trouble, and capitalization is convenient. 

Political Support and Connection

The New York Times conducted a series of investigations based on information obtained from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and interviews with global drug experts. Several other reports point towards a staunch association between Syria’s illicit Captagon industry and the country’s ruling class. President Bashar al-Assad’s associates are mainly regarded as having close ties with the drug cartel. His younger brother, Maher al-Assad, who commands the Syrian army’s Fourth Armoured Division and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah group, has been fingered as having significant and prominent roles in overseeing the production, distribution, trading, and profiteering of the drug. The Centre for Operations Analysis and Research (COAR) has alleged the parties with similar accusations.

Yazigi, an economics expert in Syria, says the Captagon trade has turned pivotal to the Syrian economy because the revenue comes in dollars. The Syrian government has become susceptible to the illicit trade of drugs. He adds that the regime will hold onto Captagon trade as it makes significant capital out of it, and an alternative source is currently absent. Citing regional security experts, the Times also noted that the main obstacle in fighting the drug trade is that it has the support of “a state that has little reason to help shut it down.

The spread of the Cartel

According to estimations from official statistics by AFP, Captagon has surpassed all of Syria’s lawful exports to emerge as the state’s single largest export by a significant margin. In recent times, the authorities in Greece, Italy, and Saudi Arabia have seized hundreds of millions of pills, most of them originating from one government-controlled port in Syria, says The New York Times.

According to Charles Lister, director of Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, the country has turned into a “narco-state,” and claimed that according to recent projections, Captagon tablets worth $5.7 billion were taken overseas last year from Syria. This circulation accounts for twice as much as the $3.5 billion worth seized in 2020. The agency claims that the worth of Syria’s Captagon sector would be valued at $57 billion even if only 1 in 10 shipments were intercepted, which is becoming increasingly difficult because of the prevalent corruption of senior border authorities.

The informal trade of drugs makes billions for the economy of Syria; however, that does not necessarily mean that it leads to the country’s development. The profits from the illegal trade do not go back into the Syrian economy. Instead, they get engulfed by armed militias and power-holding individuals, including President Assad himself. The drug cartel has penetrated the regime so profoundly that it’s challenging to bifurcate between the drug cartel and the ruling government itself. The informal generation of income through the drug cartel is more than thrice that of the revenue generated through the formal economy and threatens the economy itself. The Cartel creates a parallel economy in the same country, making it impossible to apprehend the actual economic situation of the country. Though the giant drug industry has been booming in providing minimal employment and income opportunities to the people of Syria during the civil war turmoil, the only section getting largely benefited are the elites of Syria. Also, it has become an essential source of funds for the ruling party.

Bipsa Nanda is a Postgraduate Scholar in Relations at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University, India. Her interest area includes the geopolitics of climate change, the role of gender and peace building and conflict resolution. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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