US to Target Syria’s Captagon
The Biden administration is set to unveil a comprehensive plan aimed at tackling Syria’s illicit drug trade, particularly the production and trafficking of Captagon, an illegal amphetamine. This strategy comes as Western officials express concern over the role of Captagon in Syria’s economy, with reports suggesting it has become a major source of revenue for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime amidst economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies.
Syria has emerged as the global hub for Captagon production, with an estimated 80% of the world’s supply originating from the country. The drug is primarily produced in government-controlled parts of Syria and is smuggled to neighboring countries such as Jordan before finding its way to the Gulf region, where it is widely used recreationally among young people. Western officials assert that Assad’s relatives and associates, in collaboration with the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon and Iran-backed militias, have established a lucrative illicit enterprise surrounding Captagon production.
Key players in this trade include the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, commanded by Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and Samer Kamal al-Assad, the president’s cousin, who is reportedly overseeing Captagon facilities in the port city of Latakia in coordination with the Fourth Division.
The initiative to address Syria’s Captagon trade stems from a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023, signed by President Joe Biden in December. The act mandates the administration to present a written strategy to Congress outlining its interagency plan to “deny, degrade, and dismantle Assad-linked narcotics production and trafficking networks.” The plan includes diplomatic and intelligence support, as well as training for law enforcement agencies in countries affected by the drug trade.
Ethan Goldrich, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Syria and the Levant, has confirmed that the administration will deliver its strategy in the coming weeks. The move follows a similar requirement for a report on the Assad family’s wealth, which critics deemed uninformative.
Representative French Hill, who sponsored the legislation calling for an interagency strategy on Captagon, emphasized the significance of the drug as a major funding source for Assad’s regime and its potential to infiltrate transnational drug networks, posing a risk to the Western Hemisphere.
The Biden administration’s plan comes at a time when some Arab countries are seeking to re-engage with Assad, hoping to secure concessions from him, such as creating safe conditions for the return of refugees, reducing Iran’s influence in Syria, and halting the flow of Captagon. However, critics argue that caution should be exercised to avoid empowering the regime through concessions or compromising the ongoing political process.
Assad’s growing rehabilitation has strained relations between the United States and key regional partners such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, who have concluded that a decade of isolating Assad has failed to effect change in Syria. The Arab League’s recent decision to reinstate Syria, despite objections from the United States and European allies, reflects this divergence of views.
While Washington disapproves of Assad’s rehabilitation, it encourages countries pursuing closer ties with the Syrian leader to negotiate for reciprocal benefits. The Biden administration has maintained its policy of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions on the Assad regime, recently imposing sanctions on individuals involved in the Captagon trade under the Caesar Act.
Bipartisan legislation is also underway to expand the Caesar Act, imposing stricter sanctions and prohibiting the US government from recognizing Assad’s regime. The House is expected to vote on this legislation during the summer.
As the Biden administration prepares its interagency plan to combat Syria’s Captagon trade, the world watches to see if these efforts will lead to a reduction in the production and trafficking of illicit drugs, potentially impacting Syria’s economy and regional stability.