As Syria’s bloody civil war boils on, the nation has become fertile ground for the growth of criminal activity. As we described in the August AOC brief, Syria has become a regional hub for weapons smuggling, the illicit trade in antiquities, and now drug trafficking. Recent reports have begun to emerge from Syria that amphetamine laboratories are being discovered in cities such as Homs, while drug traffickers in Lebanon have highlighted the ease with which they are able to smuggle drugs through the country. The chaos, poverty, and greed of war-torn Syria heightens the likelihood that such activities will grow in scope, financially benefitting criminals and combatants while drowning the region in narcotics and exacerbating the fragility of both Syria and its neighbours.
While several types of drugs are smuggled through Syria, the one currently raising concern is captagon. Captagon was the brand name of an amphetamine type stimulant, sold commercially until it was banned in 1986. Apart from the name, the current incarnation of the drug shares few chemical similarities with the original. Modern, illicitly produced captagon is usually composed of amphetamines cut with a mix of adulterants. The drug’s popularity has grown rapidly in the last decade, primarily in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries where it is taken as an energy booster and aphrodisiac. The value of the captagon market is massive, and increasing. Individual doses sell for $20 in Saudi Arabia; with some estimates pegging the number of captagon tablets successfully smuggled into that country at over 500 million.
While captagon has been popular in the Middle East since the 1980s, high levels of demand for the drug didn’t take off until the early 2000s. Initially, the market was supplied either by laboratories in southeastern Europe – primarily in Bulgaria, though laboratories were also uncovered in Slovenia and Serbia. The drug was then smuggled through Turkey, Syria, and Jordan before being sold in Saudi Arabia. By 2006 captagon laboratories began to appear in Turkey, including two uncovered in Gaziantep on the Turkish/Syrian border. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Syria began producing captagon that same year, while in 2007 Lebanon seized both precursor chemicals and the laboratory equipment for producing the drug. Also by this time 75% of the global illicit production of captagon’s chemical precursor was shipped to “two countries in the near and Middle East.”
Wherever it was being produced, by 2006 captagon had started to flood Saudi Arabia. In that year, Saudi Arabia seized 12 tons of the drug; roughly equivalent, as the UN Office of Drugs and Crime dryly noted in the WDR 2009, to “to the sum of all UK seizures – the biggest amphetamine market in Europe – from 2000 to 2006.” In Syria, the level of captagon seizures doubled between 2007 and 2009, to 22 million tablets. Most trafficking routes still moved overland through Syria and into Jordan, though there are some indications that a route through Iraq was active by 2010.
The Syrian civil war has entrenched the nation’s role as an entrepot for the Middle East’s amphetamine market. Labs have been uncovered in Syrian cities such as Homs, as well as in northern areas held by insurgent groups. As well, an increasing number of Syrians have been arrested throughout the Middle East for captagon smuggling. While it is unclear which groups are involved in the production and smuggling of the drug, it is likely that both the Syrian regime and at least some of the rebel organizations are financially benefitting. The patchwork nature of territorial control along traditional smuggling routes likely force traffickers to pay tolls or bribes to both sides. One apparent benefit for the traffickers is that the dire economic straights of Syria’s law enforcement and military personnel have apparently made bribery, and thus smuggling, far easier.
It is possible that Syria could evolve into a thoroughfare for other types of narcotics as well. Cocaine trafficking, and a small domestic cocaine market, developed in Syria during the 2000s, with 77 KG of the drug seized in 2007. Heroin seizures also grew dramatically during the 2000s, averaging 80 KG/year between 2007 and 2011. For drug traffickers, Syria is a geographically well-positioned staging ground not only for the Middle East’s amphetamine market, but also for Europe’s far more lucrative cocaine and heroin market. The smuggling networks that bring weapons in and humans and antiquities out of the country could well be used for narcotics trafficking. The focus by both the insurgents and the government on perpetuating the stalemated civil war lessens the likelihood that any sort of meaningful action will be taken to halt the trade in drugs.