Netflix documentaries and series have increased global awareness of the drug cartels in Mexico. But did you know about the Syrian lifeline that is the smuggling of Captagon?
Syria has recently come to face protests in Druze majority Sweida, against rising fuel costs and subsidy cuts.
Syria is no stranger to governance and economic mismanagement, known to employ unconventional methods to keep itself afloat through global economic woes, most notably through Captagon production and smuggling into Arab states.
While Syria officially denies the trade, Captagon has reportedly brought in billions for President Assad.
Exacerbated instability due to protests and a thriving drug trade are likely to make it tricky for Syria to complete its reinstatement into the Arab League, a venture that the state has recently embarked upon
Perhaps what worsens Syria’s ties with the League is employing armed allies such as Iran-backed Hezbollah for technical and logistical support to oversee Captagon trade.
All impacted nations are intensifying their actions. In August 2023, Saudi Arabia stopped a 2.2m Captagon pill smuggling attempt in a baklava shipment. In June 2023, Oman apprehended an international drug gang with over 6m pills. In April 2023, the UAE disrupted the Black Bags drug gang, seizing $6.4 million worth of drugs, including other illegal narcotics.
Jordanian forces have also constantly intercepted drones carrying drugs, weapons, and even explosives. In May 2023, after the members of the Arab League voted in favour of Syria’s reinstatement into the Arab League, Merhi al-Ramthan, the infamous ‘Captagon kingpin’, was killed with his family during an air raid in Sweida, suspected to have been engineered by Jordan.
Illegalities and the addiction crisis aside, this trade brings about several complications and instability in the region. This is exacerbated by the involvement of Iran-backed Hezbollah, which remains a thorn in Syria’s relations with Jordan and Lebanon, who have both had complicated relationships with Iran.
Additionally, geographic proximity with Lebanon and Jordan has meant that they serve as smuggling headquarters for the drug, risking their own trade relations. For instance, In 2021, KSA banned fruits and vegetables from Lebanon when 54m captagon pills were discovered in a shipment of pomegranates.
Although the drug is less known outside the Middle East, it poses a global concern. In December 2022, the US introduced the Captagon Act as a pre-emptive measure to control its entry into the country.
Captagon also appears to be a bargaining chip for Syria as it seeks the easing of sanctions amidst its re-entry into the Arab League. Although the curbing of narcotic production was one of the conditions stated for its re-entry, there has been little progress regarding it. The sidelined Syrian government seems to be heavily reliant on the production of Captagon for sustenance and its trade is worth about 3 times that of the entire Mexican cartel.