11/08/2022, 12.34
GATEWAY TO THE EAST
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Syria, Middle East narco-state: Captagon unites Assad and rebels

by Dario Salvi

A business worth 10 billion euro a year that feeds government and opposition coffers, creating 'unthinkable' alliances. A universal substance consumed by students and professionals, considered less 'forbidden' than alcohol or other drugs. Saudi Arabia the main market destination. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - One trade that unites all the parties involved in the Syrian conflict, from the Assad family to the opposition, from the Kurds to the rebel and jihadist groups that still control a substantial slice of Syrian territory, and which, over the years, has established alliances between parties considered unthinkable on paper. Over a decade of devastating civil war has reduced Syria, once one of the most economically and culturally advanced centres in the entire Middle East, to an expanse of rubble, fragments and poverty. However, there is one element that crosses borders and unites opposing fronts: Captagon, the drug that has recently established itself as the most widely used in the entire region. The stimulant, formerly famous for being spread among the militiamen of the Islamic State (IS, formerly Isis), today represents a €10 billion industry that has flourished that feeds the coffers of the government (and President Bashar al-Assad's cronies), as do many of the groups opposed to him. 

The drug of crescent moons

This flourishing traffic has turned the Arab nation into the world's last narco-state and has spread its meshes to neighbouring Lebanon, which is also in the grip of a very serious political and institutional crisis. Today, Captagon - an amphetamine derived from a legal treatment of narcolepsy and attention disorders - far exceeds all other legal export products added together.

From Syria and Lebanon, the main producers with hundreds of millions of tablets per year, the drug crosses borders to meet the huge demands of the Gulf countries, led by Mohammed bin Salman's Saudi Arabia (Mbs). The tablets are ingested but can also be crushed and inhaled. The amphetamine contained inside stimulates brain activity, increasing - at least initially - attention levels and self-confidence, while decreasing appetite and the need for sleep. Characteristics that make it appreciated by a wide range of consumers, including students who can spend entire nights on books or taxi drivers, not to mention professionals who want to stay focused for hours.

The Wahhabi kingdom is the main market for the drug, particularly among young people who can take advantage of bin Salman's openings for entertainment - from concerts to cinemas, rave parties and now Halloween - to party all night long. Girls take it predominantly, and in large quantities, to lose weight because it cuts down on the need for food.

Moreover, there is an ethical reason not only in Riyadh, but also in other Muslim Gulf nations, from the United Arab Emirates to Qatar, for its success: Captagon is perceived as a less dangerous and banned substance than cocaine or alcohol, the consumption of which is forbidden (at least in words) in Islamic countries. The consumption - and abuse - of methamphetamine does, however, lead to serious damage to the body in the long term, with injuries to the nervous system, muscles and heart.

There are also other components within the tablets - which are distinguished from other drugs by the presence of the characteristic 'C' stamped on both sides - that are equally dangerous. Moreover, the logo has led users in the Arab world to nickname the drug 'Abou al-Hilalain' or 'Father of the Two Crescent Moons'.

From the quest for 'highs' to study, a now universal use

The best quality tablets, destined for the Gulf, are white, but there are also yellow, beige and even pink ones and are packaged in sachets of 200 pills each. Not only a high and more or less 'halal' fun because for some, especially among migrant workers, drugs are also the way to work, and earn money.

Cheap, discreet, and less taboo than alcohol, for many poor Saudis and those from other Asian (or African) nations, Captagon is an injection of strength, as an Afp survey reveals. 'I can work for two or three days non-stop,' says 20-year-old worker Faisal, who spends up to 40 euros a week on pills, 'which has allowed me to double my earnings and pay off debts. 'I finish my first job exhausted early in the morning,' the young man observes, 'but the drugs allow me to do a second job as a ride-sharing driver.

An Egyptian immigrant working in the construction industry reveals that he started taking the pills because his boss used to sneak them into his coffee so that he would work harder and longer.  'In a short time,' he admits, 'my colleagues and I became addicted. The price can vary a lot, from the 25 euro premium tablets sold to rich Saudis to the adulterated, low-quality ones at around one euro. 

Assad and rebels, business for everyone

Those involved in the illegal trade confirm, on condition of anonymity, that the costs are low and the profits high, so much so that if only one in 10 transports is successful, the operation is still a success. At the top of the regional drug trade is a network of around 50 people from Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Some have strong ties with the tribal populations of the area, in particular with the Bedouin confederation of Bani Khaled, which from Syria and Lebanon extends its tentacles of ties and interests to Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The numbers of seizures, albeit a minuscule part of the traffic, are also substantial: last year, law enforcement agencies blocked at least 400 million pills throughout the Middle East. Customs and anti-drug agents report that for every shipment they seize, nine more go through. This means that even with an average low price of EUR 5 per packet and only four out of five passing inspection, Captagon has become a more than 10 billion industry, with Syria boasting 80% of the world supply, at least three times the national budget. 

The Syrian president's family as well as rebel and jihadist groups are allegedly involved in the deal. The shadowy network of warlords and profiteers that Assad bought himself to fight has benefited enormously, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, which would play a 'significant' role in protecting the trade, especially along the border.

Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based NGO with a dense network of informants on the ground, points out that 'Maher al-Assad is one of the main beneficiaries of the Captagon trade'. He reportedly receives 'a share' in his personal capacity, while the money from the trade is also used to pay the armed groups engaged in the various conflict zones, such as Idlib.

Sometimes the raw material is supplied in sacks with army insignia, but the rebel groups themselves are fully included in the traffic by exploiting the route that leads from the provinces of Sweida and Daraa, bordered by Jordan, to Saudi Arabia.

"The Captagon has brought all parties to the conflict together.... The government, the opposition, the Kurds and Isis,' says a former senior Damascus official. Even in this area, the drugs 'have forged alliances that on paper were unthinkable'.

Meanwhile, in Syria and Lebanon there are no prospects for improvement and the political, economic and institutional crises seem destined to last, allowing drugs to establish themselves as an indispensable pillar to sustain the two countries. "Syria has become the global epicentre of production by conscious choice," confirms Ian Larson, an industry expert and head of consultancy COAR. "With its economy crippled by war and sanctions," he adds, "Damascus has few other options on the plate" while for producers and traffickers the belief prevails that it is "only just beginning".

GATEWAY TO THE EAST  IS THE ASIANEWS NEWSLETTER DEDICATED TO THE MIDDLE EAST. TO RECEIVE A WEEKLY UPDATE EVERY TUESDAY, CLICK HERE.

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