The war in Syria has been going on for more than 10 years. But drug production and trafficking are the poorly understood aspects of the conflict. The country has a long history of hashish production. But the drug most associated with the current crisis is Captagon (fenethylline). Will Syria become a drug-driven country?
In July 2020, Italian port officials seized 84 million tablets of the synthetic drug Captagon. It was worth $1.1 billion, aboard three Syrian cargo ships. It was one of the largest unsuccessful drug smuggling cases in history.
As the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) points out in its report, both drug production and trafficking are poorly understood aspects of the Syrian conflict. While there is attention to drug use among combatants, less time is spent understanding the social and individual effects of drug use and the dynamics of drug trafficking and its impact on the conflict itself. Below are the most important findings contained in the COAR report.
Profound qualitative change
Syria is a global producer of Captagon. Trade in this drug was once one of the ways of financing various armed groups. Drug trafficking in Syria has expanded since 2018, i.e. when a large part of the country was brought back under government control. In addition to the increase in exports, there was also a profound qualitative change and the concealment of drugs became more elaborate.
For the past three years, profits from expanding trade have become a key source of funding for the Assad regime. The simultaneous decimation of conventional economic activity has increased the attractiveness of the drug industry and its industrial development. In 2020, the export of Captagon from Syria reached a market value of at least $3.46 billion. However, it is estimated that this amount is much lower than actually achieved.
Syria as a narco-state
Syria will soon become, if not already, the so-called narco-state, i.e.a state based on the drug business. The country has a long history of hashish production. But the drug most associated with the current crisis is Captagon (fenethylline).
Captagon is the trade name for a drug that was developed in the 1960s. of XX century. It has been used as a medicine for ADHD, narcolepsy, and depression as it increases awareness and energizes. It can also improve focus and relieve anxiety. Like other drugs consumed in virtually all contemporary conflicts, it gives strength and helps to fight fatigue and boredom – inherent elements of combat conditions.
Currently, in Syria, Captagon is best understood not as a specific drug, but as a general group of synthetic stimulants. Very rarely, the pills marketed as Captagon contain fenethylline, the active ingredient found under a registered Captagon trademark. Instead, tablets currently produced in Syria are usually made from a blend of more accessible substances (caffeine, amphetamines, and theophylline).
Captagon can be obtained at a low cost and requires neither complex infrastructure nor advanced chemical knowledge to manufacture. 5,000 tablets fit in a shoebox weighing about 1 kg, so it is easy to hide or transport.
There are two types of tablets in the country: yellow (low-quality) and white (higher-quality). The latter cost more and are usually exported. The consumption of Captagon in Syria has become a common feature of everyday life throughout the country. According to local sources, one pill costs between $0.5 and $1.
Pills leaving the country of production do not travel very far. Evidence shows that Europe serves as a transit hub for drugs that are mainly destined for the Middle East and North African markets. In the Arabian Peninsula – especially in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where Captagon is used as a recreational drug – the price per pill is as high as $20.
The protracted conflict in Syria is fostering drug trafficking
It is widely recognized that drugs and armed conflict are inextricably linked. Syrian analysts have frequently explored how the conflict is fueling drug trafficking. They analyzed the inverse relationship, i.e. how drug trafficking affects the destabilization of the country, much less frequently.
Illicit drug trafficking in crisis-hit countries generally exacerbates violence, prolongs fighting, and hampers post-conflict stabilization and political transition. It is impossible to predict the future of the conflict in Syria without considering the scale of the drug industry. On the other hand, it is important to be aware of how small it will be possible to counteract the development of the Syrian drug economy if the conflict does not end.
The tremendous contraction of the national economy increased the dependence of the Syrian regime on the war industry. For over 10 years, Syria has been undergoing deep economic degradation. It has turned from a middle-income state to a country where almost 90% of its inhabitants are in poverty.
By 2018, Syria’s GDP had fallen to $21 billion, compared to $67 billion in 2011. Foreign exports have been almost completely eliminated. In 2020 alone, foreign law enforcement intercepted four shipments of Syrian Captagon, each estimated to be worth more than $300 million. The scale of Syrian drug exports and the reduction in legal trade activity make drugs the most important source of foreign currency in the country.
The longer the crisis in Syria flares up, the more complex the consequences will be. However, the traditional way of fighting drugs, even after the end of the conflict, may be ineffective due to the institutionalized nature of drug trafficking and its links with conflict actors and international criminal networks.
In addition, the impact of Captagon or hashish on individuals should not be forgotten. But on the other hand, one should also look more broadly at the increasing use of drugs in the entire Syrian society. Recruitable men got used to stimulants. To civilians faced with cruel, multi-dimensional poverty, drugs are one of the cheapest pain relievers available today.
It must be admitted that drug consumption in Syria is a multi-faceted sociopolitical problem rooted in violence, institutional failure, humanitarian crisis, and despair.
Effective psychiatric care and psychosocial support could be important steps in tackling common causes of drug use. However, in the beginning it will be more important to restore the possibility of living in decent conditions. And escape the hopelessness that defines the daily lives of many Syrians.
The text is based on:
 Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR), The Syrian Economy at War; Captagon, Hashish, and the Syrian Narco-State,
 The Guardian, ‘A dirty business’: how one drug is turning Syria into a narco-state.
Cover photo credit: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús via flickr.com.