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Syria, Captagon and Geopolitics: From Magic Bullet to Placebo

Since its emergence in the early years of the Syrian Civil War, ‘Captagon’, a cheap amphetamine, has had a seismic impact on both the societies and geopolitics of the Middle East.

Small but powerful: Captagon pills seized by authorities in 2021 after an attempt to smuggle them in pasta to Saudi Arabia

In May 2023, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared in Riyadh at the annual Arab League summit for the first time since Syria’s suspension in November 2011. A sea change was afoot in the geopolitics of the Middle East: China had brokered a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March, and key Arab League members were eyeing the restoration of Syria’s seat at the table, setting a clear distance from the position of the US. Resettlement of millions of internally displaced persons and refugees, aid to the earthquake-afflicted northwest, and the lifting of UN sanctions all figured in the vote to readmit Assad into the Arab League. But Assad’s promise to ‘stem the flow’ of Captagon, an easy-to-produce pill at the centre of an estimated $10 billion dollar trade, received particular interest.

Further investigation into the 2020 seizure of 84 million Captagon pills (worth an estimated €1 billion) from the Italian port of Salerno confirmed to Western observers what Arab journalists and Middle East policy specialists had long known: that the Assad regime was the major player in the production and export of the amphetamine from Syria. From regime-aligned actors to members of Assad’s close family, the regime and its network of allies have, according to the Syrian Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, direct control over approximately $7.3 billion of Captagon revenues. In their historic decision to reintegrate Syria, regional powers judged Assad, as Captagon’s largest beneficiary, to be best placed to rein in the trade. Many regional commentators therefore held the curtailment of Captagon to be a ‘strong tool’ wagered by Assad to win over the wealthy Gulf states, at once securing reconstruction funds, avoiding concessions to the Syrian opposition and regaining long sought-after international legitimacy.

More than a year on from normalisation, and the trade in Captagon has shown few signs of slowing down. Much-vaunted interdictions and the removal of several sanctioned individuals connected to the Captagon trade in Syria and Lebanon have done little to obscure the reality that Captagon production and trafficking from Syria (and the concomitant flow of cash into the coffers of the Assad regime) has continued unabated. Promises to ‘stem the flow’ have, thus far, produced little in the way of results.

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