Sky High: Ensuing Narcotics Crisis in MENA and the Role of the Assad Regime

The staggering scale of recent narcotics seizures in the Middle East—and Arab Asia in particular—and their ties to state and non-state actors in Syria is drawing the world’s attention. The United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union have begun sanctioning Syrian and Lebanese suppliers as part of their response, with US legislators awaiting a holistic government response. Some countries in the region have recently considered the once-unthinkable: normalising relations with the Assad regime, partly in the hope of cooperating directly with Damascus to curb the supply.

This research documents the seizure over the last three years of over a billion pills of amphetamine-type drugs commonly known as ‘captagon’. It offers the most comprehensive attempt, to date, to understand the breadth and nature of the ongoing narcotics crisis and the networks sustaining much of their supply in Syria and to a lesser extent in Lebanon. While all drug types are observed, special attention is given to captagon.

Researchers constructed two databases specifically for this project. The first documents 1,251 drug seizures originating, transiting through, or reaching their destination in Arab Asian countries between 2016 and 2022. The richness of the data enables identification of how seizures vary by drug type, amount, countries of origin, countries of transit, and geolocation of seizures over time.

The second is a network database that maps actors involved in the supply of narcotics from Syria and Lebanon. It contains 712 nodes (441 individuals and 271 non-individuals) and a narrative detailing their roles and relationships within the network. The database, compiled from primary and secondary sources, is the most expansive documentation effort on the subject to date.

Three main findings emerge from the seizure database. First: while cannabis resin (hashish) seizures have increased, captagon seizures have risen far more rapidly. Second: of the 111 seizures of all drug types in the region where the seizing authority declared the country of origin, 60 (54%) originated in regime-held Syria, seven (6%) in Lebanon, and five (4.5%) in either of the two. Most seizures originating from Syria and Lebanon involve the two most popular types of drugs: captagon and hashish. For the far more harmful synthetic captagon, 36 of 50 seizures (72%) originated in regime-held Syria. Finally, a particularly worrying development over 2022 is that more captagon seizures are occurring within consumer countries’ borders rather than at points of entry, which—assuming no changes in interdiction capacity—may indicate that more captagon is reaching consumers.

The network database reveals that Assad-aligned entities, such as the Fourth Armoured Division, the Military Intelligence Directorate, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the National Defence Forces, are responsible for much of the narcotics supply from Syria, with at least nine members of Assad’s extended family involved. Furthermore, Iranian-backed actors in the northeast, such as the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, are increasingly implicated. While elements of opposition forces are involved in narcotics production and smuggling, their role remains marginal.

The Assad regime is likely to make unreasonably high economic and political demands in exchange for cutting the supply of narcotics, an economic lifeline to it and to Lebanese actors in the region. The study estimated the profit generated by the regime and Lebanese actors using various assumptions for the period 2019–2022. Our average estimate from captagon alone is $7.3 billion—well above any other single licit or illicit source of revenue.

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