Assad’s billion-dollar drug industry keeps regime family ‘flush with money,’ wreaks havoc across region

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Sixty-five million seized pills in Jordan, 15 million seized pills in Saudi Arabia and 86 million seized pills in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These are just a handful of numbers Gulf Arab countries have dealt with in recent years as the drug Captagon is smuggled across the region. 

Captagon is a highly addictive synthetic amphetamine-type stimulant that has grown in popularity throughout the Middle East. It is largely produced in Syria and Lebanon by networks of individuals connected with Hezbollah and the Syrian military’s elite Fourth Division, led by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher. 

Caroline Rose, director of the New Lines Institute’s Project on the Captagon Trade, told Fox News Digital Captagon appeals across demographics. 

“The pill’s ability to induce a euphoric rush attracts recreational users as well as those seeking to repress trauma, while others seek out Captagon for its ability to improve productivity, stave sleep for hours at a time and reduce hunger,” Rose said.

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captagon pills seized

A closeup of seized Captagon pills.  (Fox News/Getty Images)

“For this reason, Captagon has had a mass appeal across classes, generations and sectors. Captagon is a name known to both the wealthy clubgoer in Dubai, the university student [in] Riyadh, the cab driver in Beirut and those struggling to find their next meal in Aleppo.”

The drug was used by fighters in the Syrian civil war and has since been used as a type of party drug in the Gulf that is inexpensive and similar to low-grade cocaine.

captagon pills laid out on a table

This picture taken March 1, 2022, shows a view of a cache of Captagon pills seized by the Directorate of Narcotics Control of Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry during a special operation. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

Rose said the Captagon trade is largely conducted off the books, so it’s difficult to determine exactly how much the Assad regime profits from the illicit alternative revenue source.

“The best estimate thus far that has been evaluated is from the Syrian Observatory for Political and Economic Networks, which assesses that regime-aligned networks have made at least $7 billion from the trade in the last three years,” Rose explained.

“It is known that the largest industrial-scale manufacturing centers are located deep within regime-held territory, many of which are operated by individuals closely aligned with the Assad family, Fourth Division and/or Hezbollah.”

“Even with increased awareness, Western sanctions on producers and traffickers and pressure from regional stakeholders, it’s unlikely that these networks would shift production outside of Syria. Syria has the industrial-scale infrastructure, governmental complicity and demand for alternative revenue that is conducive for the Captagon trade to thrive.”

Riyadh, Amman and Dubai have seen an uptick in Captagon smuggling in the past several years, but most recently after normalizing relations with Assad in May 2023. 

Syria was brought back into the fold and welcomed to the Arab League last spring for the first time in more than a decade after it was expelled in 2011 due to its brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. 

“We shouldn’t have been surprised that Assad didn’t crack down on Captagon,” said Andrew Tabler, the Martin J. Gross senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

The cross-border drug smuggling has hit Jordan the most in recent months due to its proximity to Syria. Tabler explained that Jordan is important as a transit country to Sunni Arab Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, making it harder for Syrian smugglers to move Captagon through Iraq and other places due to instability.

jordanian drone

A picture taken during a tour organized by the Jordanian Army shows a drone flying over an observation post along the border with Syria Feb. 17, 2022. (Khalil Mazraawi/afp/AFP via Getty Images)

“Jordan ends up being, you know, caught in the middle, literally,” Tabler told Fox News Digital.

The Jordanian army said in late December that its armed forces engaged in a shootout with smugglers from Syria attempting to bring Captagon and hashish across the border. 

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sufian Qudah told a state news agency last month that more drugs and weapons were seized after another attempted smuggling operation. 

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“Drug and weapons smuggling from Syria to Jordan, which claimed and injured a number of our brave officers, represent a direct threat to Jordan’s security, and it will continue to be confronted with all determination until it is completely defeated,” Qudah said. 

Amman has responded to the uptick in smuggling with airstrikes in Syria reportedly targeting suspected drug traffickers. Syria’s foreign ministry condemned the strikes. 

JET

A Rafale jet at the Royal Jordanian Air Force’s Prince Hassan Air Base Dec. 22, 2023. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Tabler said Assad would have to be incentivized to stop or severely curtail the production of Captagon.

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“You can do it with carrots, buying him off. That’s what he wants. He wants reconstruction money,” he explained. “The other way to stop this behavior is through military force. The Jordanians have used that repeatedly over the last month and throughout the last year.”

“That’s the quickest way to stop anybody’s behavior. But you have to be able to sustain it. And there’s just a lot more Captagon than there are bombs, so to speak, to knock them out. So, we’re really at an impasse in trying to figure out how to deal with this.”