Amphetamines, addiction and Assad: How Syria became the world’s newest narco-state

Journalist Ella Glover explores how war-torn Syria has devolved into the world's newest narco-state.

“I have a future and a family and work, but now I’m caught and I can’t stop. I have no outlets for happiness but drugs. I’ve come to depend on them.” These words of despair are those of a young Syr- ian woman. “I will try to get treatment for my addiction. I can’t continue,” she shared with the independent media organisation Raseef22. “Damn this war, it’s left us with no chances for happiness.”

Her story of drug addiction is not a rare one, not only in war-torn Syria, but across the Middle East – in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And it seems that one drug is more responsible than others: the little- known, once-legal amphetamine pill Cap- tagon. It was first used by Islamic fighters to help them stay awake and perform bet- ter on the battlefield, but media reports suggest that Syrians have turned to drugs, including Captagon and hashish, to deal with the burden and trauma of war.

Captagon first came on the market in the 1960s as a prescription drug used to treat conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and narcolepsy. Its main ingredient was fenethylline, an addictive amphetamine-type stimulant that was banned after it became clear its addictive effects outweighed its clinical benefits. Fenethylline was scheduled under the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971) and therefore banned in 1986, and so Captagon’s time on the licit drug market came to an end. But, as is so often the case, it didn’t stop there. Illegal pills branded as Captagon started being manufactured in the Balkans, including Bulgaria, Slovenia and Montenegro during the 1990s and 2000s. Eventually this production spread into the Middle East, particularly Lebanon and Syria, and these places still serve as the main production hubs. Here, it is believed that a number of groups and militia connected to neighbouring regimes as well as the Syrian government are involved in the production, smuggling and trafficking of Captagon – and the trade is bleeding into society, with more and more Syrian civilians using the drug.

As with any drug, Captagon is predominantly used as a party drug in the Middle East, but reports suggest that it is also being used by university students in Syria to help them to be able to hold down jobs and study at the same time. As well as addiction, long-term use can lead to extreme depression, psychosis, hallucinations and aggression. But, despite the risks, those who use Captagon – which is easily accessible and costs between 125 Syrian pounds (£0.007) and 7,000 Syrian pounds (£0.41) – feel that they have no other choice under an economic system that means they have to work alongside their studies in order to afford their basic needs.

Then there’s the matter of production. When you hear the term narco-state you usually think of places like Mexico and Columbia and their respective infamous drug lords El Chapo and Pablo Escobar, but the Captagon pills spreading through the Middle East are manufactured much closer to home, and experts believe that out of the rubble of the civil war in Syria, a fresh narco-state has emerged. Numerous investigations, including those by the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research, the New Lines Institute and the BBC, have found links between the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has served as the Syrian president since 2000 and whose presidency saw the transformation of the Syrian state into a dictatorship, and the multimillion-dollar Captagon trade, which appears to be being used to help him hold onto power in the Middle East.

Shockingly, the illegal Captagon trade is estimated to be worth some $5.7 billion (£4.4 billion) according to Caroline Rose, director of the Strategic Blind Spots Portfolio at the New Lines Institute, “and that only accounts for what is seized, so it was likely over $6 billion in terms of the total market value,” she tells HUNGER. “But the most up-to-date and accurate estimate that I now follow is one that was put out by [the French international news agency] AFP in November 2022, and they estimate the total weight of both seized and unseized Captagon pills is worth over $10 billion.” So, with 80 per cent of production believed to take place in Syria, Captagon has become the war-torn country’s most lucrative export, surpassing its legal products on a vast scale.

This is where the Syrian government comes in. In a country plunged into economic instability by a civil war and numerous sanctions, the Captagon trade provides possibility for growth and control. While Captagon production in Syria was historically run by anti-state armed groups, Assad’s regime and its territorial allies have been able to harness their growing territorial power to gain a bigger slice of the pie.

Following the 2019 Lebanese economic crisis, which had knock-on effects in Syria, the Captagon trade began to grow in size and sophistication. “The smuggling materials being used by those in the trade indicate that they’re becoming not only more sophisticated, but also risk averse,” Rose adds. “The Captagon trade used to be small scale, both in size and geograph- ic scope, but we started to see the sea change in how Captagon was transported, not only inside the Middle East, but also across the Mediterranean and Red Sea, in 2019.” Why? Rose says: “It’s overwhelmingly clear that this is because the Syrian state has thrown its weight behind the Captagon trade.”

Although Assad and the Syrian government denies any involvement in the trade, a recent investigation by the BBC found that the Syrian Armed Forces and The Fourth Division, an elite Syrian army, were taking part in the smuggling of Captagon. Earlier this year, relatives of al-Assad were sanctioned by the EU and UK government over their alleged involvement in drug production and trafficking. The trade is said to enrich al-Assad’s inner circle, including militias and warlords, and is being used as a means to pressure other countries to do what they want.

“The Syrian regime is using their agency over the Captagon trade as a kind of a negotiation tool, to encourage normalisation with its regional neighbours,” Rose states, and she’s not alone in this view. Dr Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Initiative on Non State Armed Actors, agrees: “The Assad regime has been normalised for a number of years diplomatically, but as part of the final normalisation, Saudi, which is the epicentre consumption of Captagon, has been demanding that As- sad crack down on the trade. The Syrian government’s position has been totally predictable – they deny involvement and say they’ll increase their already diligent efforts to crack down on the trade.” This May, Syria was allowed back into the Arab League, at a price – an end to the production and smuggling of Captagon in Syria. Syria’s government responded by calling for its neighbours to place pressure on the US government to ease sanctions.

So, for the government and gangs controlling its production, Captagon is a route to financial viability and a fresh seat at the table for the Assad regime. For everyone else, however, the trade is having a detri- mental, and in some cases, deadly impact.

It makes people feel happier, more alert, confident and able to perform better physically, so it’s no surprise that Captagon became the most popular recreation- al drug in the Gulf by 2017. But evidence suggests that many young people in the Middle East are now dealing with addiction. In one UK addiction clinic with a predominantly Middle Eastern client base, 30 per cent of patients are being treated for Captagon addiction. The clinic now has a dedicated service for Captagon users, with people flying to London to be treated.

While Captagon is no more dangerous than the speed we use in Europe, there are limited appropriate medical facilities and treatment programmes for drug-use- related disorders in the Middle East, with Syrians being the worst affected. “They are getting the worst-quality Captagon pills,” Rose says. “They’re the cheapest and it’s very likely that these pills are being produced with Syrian consumers in mind. The combination of chemicals inside the Captagon pills can be dangerous, and especially with prolonged, long-term use, they definitely pose some serious long- term health risks.”

These days Captagon pills rarely con- tain fenethylline. Instead they contain a number of amphetamines and caffeine or, to a lesser extent, methamphetamine (or crystal meth), which “have been linked to changes in brain function, increased risk of stroke, increased blood pressure, and risk of dependence”, according to the New Lines Institute report.

The Middle East is already facing a burgeoning crystal meth crisis; when smoked, meth poses a far higher public-health risk than Captagon or other amphetamine tablets because it is far more addictive due to its fast-acting nature. This, Felbab-Brown says, is the real risk. “There is a possibility of entrance into the [meth] market and no one can guarantee that the Mexicans will snatch it,” she asserts. “The know-how and the chemicals needed to produce methamphetamine are completely available to the Assad regime, so you can imagine a scenario where Middle Eastern countries like Saudi and UAE put pressure on Assad to crackdown on Captagon, and the Assad regime does it. But underneath the official crack-down, Captagon producers linked to the regime start moving into methamphetamine.” It’s a theory that isn’t so far-fetched: last month the Jordanian government said it intercepted a plane carrying methamphetamine over the border from Syria.

Felbab-Brown also believes there is violence that can be attributed to the trafficking of Captagon elsewhere. “There are other countries, like Jordan, that have experienced significant violence from the trafficking groups, as well as from the forces responding to the trafficking groups.” In May this year, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said that “Jordanian Forces and the Syrian regime were responsible for the killing of seven Syrian civilians, including five children and one woman” in an airstrike targeting a big player in the Captagon trade. This led the group to accuse the Syrian government of hiding traffickers among the Syrian civilian population, thus putting people’s lives at risk.

And as a result, the Captagon trade has also had an impact on local communities, particularly those on the Syria-Lebanon border, where young people are joining the trade – both by force and by choice. A report by the London-based international affairs think tank Chatham House said that young people in these communities were “abandoning education to enrol in the trade” and that vulnerable people are being exploited by local militias, “being forced to engage in illicit activities, pay royalties to the ruling militias or endure harassment, fraud and intimidation”. These youngsters are also perhaps being sold Captagon at a cut-price rate, Rose says. “We’ve seen some limited evidence that Captagon has been used as a recruiting tool for a lot of these militias and armed groups. It’s likely that, in some areas, these groups are trying to get local teenagers and youth groups and other individuals hooked, so they can try to lure them in and recruit them into local security forces.”

Ultimately the current situation in Syria should be seen as a result of many years of fighting and upheaval. While devastating to witness, it’s not difficult to understand why so many, including soldiers and officers in the armed forces, are turning to drugs to self-medicate or supplement their low wages. As Felbab-Brown concludes: “[Working in the trade] is the way to make money in a des- perately poor country with a hugely collapsed economy. It’s a deprived, starving place, so while it is possible that some people are being recruited forcibly, many people want to be in on it, because that’s the only way to make money.”

WriterElla Glover