In the summer of 2015 a businessman in the Syrian province of Latakia was approached by a powerful security chief, seeking a favour. The official wanted the merchant, an importer of medical supplies, to source large amounts of a drug called fenethylline from abroad. The regime, he said, would readily buy the lot.
After an internet search, the merchant made a decision. He left his home that same week, first sending his wife and children to exile, then following after, scrounging what he could from his businesses for a new start. “I know what they were asking me to do,” he said from his new home in Paris. “They wanted the main ingredient for Captagon. And that drug is a dirty business.”
Other businessmen in Syria’s north have not shared his reservations. The manufacture of Captagon in the regime heartland has become one of Syria’s only recent business success stories; a growth industry so big and sophisticated that it is starting to rival the GDP of the flatlining economy itself.
From the ruins of Syria, and the similarly disastrous collapse across the border in Lebanon, where in late April a shipment of Captagon hidden in pomegranates and exported from Beirut was found by Saudi officials, a reality is crystallising: both countries are fast becoming narco-states – if they have not met that definition already.
Before the April seizure of millions of Captagon pills, which led to a ban in Saudi Arabia on all agricultural imports from Lebanon, at least 15 other shipments of the drug had been intercepted in the Middle East and Europe in the past two years. Six police and intelligence officials in the Middle East and Europe have told the Guardian that all were shipped from Syria’s Captagon heartland, or across the frontier in Lebanon, where a network of untouchables – crime families, militia leaders and political figures – have formed cross-border cartels that make and distribute industrial scale quantities of drugs.
“They are very dangerous people,” said one senior official in Beirut. “They are scared of no one. They hide in plain sight.”
Captagon is one of several brand names for the drug compound fenethylline hydrochloride. A stimulant with addictive properties, it is used recreationally across the Middle East and is sometimes called a “poor man’s cocaine”. It is also used by armed groups and regular forces in battle situations, where it is seen as having properties that boost courage and numb fears.
For all intents and purposes, the border between both countries is redundant, a lawless zone where smugglers operate with the complicity of officials on both sides. The smugglers move precursors and finished products, both hashish and Captagon, along a route that takes in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, the Syrian border town of Qusayr and the roads north through the Alawite heartland of the Assad regime, towards the ports of Latakia and Tartus.
Latakia in particular has been under the intense scrutiny of European and American police and intelligence agencies. A cousin of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, Samer al-Assad is an influential figure at the port. According to the exiled merchant and three other Latakia businessmen, anyone who wants to operate must pay a substantial cut from proceeds in return for access to networks and protection. Despite the scrutiny on the port, few interdictions have been made at the source. Instead the roll call of hauls found since 2019 has rivalled the heyday of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for scale and efficiency.
They include five tonnes of Captagon tablets found in Greece in July that year, two similar hauls in Dubai in subsequent months, and four tonnes of hashish uncovered in the Egyptian city of Port Said in April 2020, wrapped in the packaging of the Milkman company. At the time the company was owned by the regime tycoon Rami Makhlouf.
There was also a Captagon shipment to Saudi Arabia hidden in tea leaves, as well as seizures in Romania, Jordan, Bahrain and Turkey. In July last year, the biggest ever haul of the drug, with a street value of more than €1bn (£870m), was intercepted in the Italian port of Salerno, which is believed to have been intended as a waypoint en route to Dubai.
The consignment was hidden in paper rolls and machinery sent from a printing plant in Aleppo, and officials in Rome initially blamed the import on the Islamic State terror group. Last December, blame was shifted to the powerful Lebanese militia-cum-political bloc Hezbollah. The party denies involvement and claims it has no hand in a regional and global trade in Captagon that is rapidly becoming associated with both failing states.
The research organisation the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research, which focuses on Syria, recently released a report highlighting the role of Captagon and hashish in the country, where the economy has been crippled by a decade of war, western sanctions, entrenched corruption and the collapse of Lebanon, where billions of dollars have disappeared in the pit of the country’s banking system.
“Syria is a narco-state with two primary drugs of concern: hashish and the amphetamine-type stimulant Captagon,” the report says. “Syria is the global epicentre of Captagon production, which is now more industrialised, adaptive, and technically sophisticated than ever.
“In 2020, Captagon exports from Syria reached a market value of at least $3.46bn [£2.5bn]. Though conjectural, a market ceiling significantly higher than this is distinctly possible. Although Captagon trafficking was once among the funding streams utilised by anti-state armed groups, consolidation of territorial control has enabled the Assad regime and its key regional allies to cement their role as the prime beneficiaries of the Syrian narcotics trade.”
An exiled former regime insider who retains connections with some officials inside the country said: “The war in Syria has not only caused the death of hundreds of thousands, over 6 million refugees, 8 million internally displaced, around 1 million injured, [and] the complete destruction of towns and cities, but [also] a total collapse of the economy following the Lebanese banking crisis, followed by the pandemic and the Caesar Act [of US sanctions] which has turned the country officially into a ‘narco-state’ … with a few regime businessmen and warlords turning into drug lords.
“At the start of the conflict, $1 was equal to 50 Syrian pounds. The exchange rate dropped but managed to stay at 500-600 Syrian pounds throughout eight years of the war until the Lebanese crisis began in 2019. Then we started seeing the total collapse of both currencies simultaneously, which shows how interconnected they are. Lebanon had been acting as Syria’s respirator. And it suddenly lost its oxygen supply.”
Several months after the Latakia merchant fled Syria, a visitor arrived in Lebanon on a private jet from Saudi Arabia. His name was Prince Abdulmohsen bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a member of the royal family, then in his late 20s. As the prince prepared to fly home, on 26 October 2015, he was arrested, allegedly with two tonnes of Captagon pills in his luggage. For the next four years, he was held in a room above a police station in Beirut’s Hamra district, where he was given more perks than other prisoners as negotiations for his release continued.
“He was set up by Hezbollah,” said a Lebanese intelligence official. “He walked right into a trap, and it took them [Riyadh] a long time to free him, because the people here were looking for the right prize for him. The state was not involved. It was all made to go away. The right people were paid, and he went home in 2019. Captagon can get things done.”