Is the Syrian Regime the World’s Biggest Drug Dealer?

Experts say Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is a narco state that is pumping out millions of speed pills and is now a bigger drug producer than the Mexican cartels.
Max Daly
London, GB
Officers of the Directorate of Narcotics Control of Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry sort through seized tablets of captagon in March 2022. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images.

Syria has become the world’s biggest drug cartel due to its “astronomical” output of illicit speed, according to an expert on the country.  

The civil war-torn country has become a “narco state” and its huge output of captagon, a black market amphetamine pill, eclipses that of the Mexican cartels, said Charles Lister, director of Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programmes at the Middle East Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC. 


Comparing Syria’s drug industry to that of the Mexican cartels, Lister, speaking at a webinar hosted by the Hamoon Center, an NGO focused on the ongoing political crisis in Syria, said: “It is double, triple, potentially quadruple the scale of what the Mexicans are producing and exporting. The actual numbers of this trade are absolutely astronomical.”


Fake oranges filled with captagon pills found in boxes containing real fruit seized at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, in December 2021. Photo: Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images.

He said recent estimates showed that last year $5.7 billion worth of Syrian-made captagon pills were seized abroad, a near doubling compared to the $3.5 billion worth seized in 2020, and far higher than Syria's annual legal exports of around $800 million. 

Regional officials with expertise in organised crime and drug smuggling have told Lister and others that seizures, which have reportedly increased again in 2022, only account for “between 5 and 10 percent” of Syria’s total trade in captagon.  

Lister said that even if 1 in 10 shipments were seized – increasingly difficult due to the widespread corruption of senior border officials – this would give Syria’s captagon industry an estimated value of $57 billion. Analysts put the value of the combined drug trade for Mexico’s cartels at between $5 billion to $21 billion


A series of investigations and reports have established strong links between Syria’s illegal captagon industry and the country’s ruling elite, which has a long track record of repressing its own citizens. Associates of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, in particular his younger brother, Maher al-Assad, and the Syrian army’s 4th Armoured Division, have been identified as having major roles in production, distribution and profiteering from the drug.  


Syrian president Bashar al-Assad welcomes Russia's defence minister Sergey Shoygu in Damascus on February 15, 2022, 5 days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry?Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“The money from the captagon trade is crucial for the regime to feed its repression machine,” Jihad Yazigi, founder and editor of the Syria Report, an online bulletin covering Syrian economic affairs, told VICE World News. “Captagon exports represent the single most important contribution to foreign currency earnings for the Syrian economy.” 

“There is no way of knowing for sure how much the regime is benefitting, but the scale makes the fact the regime is benefitting inevitable,” said Lister. “Captagon has become the core glue that ties the three institutions of the regime’s state together, the regime, the crony elite, and the loyalist security units. Captagon is industrial scale in Syria for a reason: it’s a regime-backed, protected and guaranteed effort. The regime pulls all the strings,” Lister told VICE World News. 


Captagon mimics a now-banned ADHD medicine of the same name developed in Germany in 1961. Containing the amphetamine fenethylline, the medicine was banned in the 1980s, but by then it had already become a popular recreational drug in the Middle East. After the ban, underground chemists began making their own versions of the pills, which now contain a mix of cheap amphetamines, caffeine and fillers. 

With its medicine-like appearance captagon, known as “two moons” on the street because pills often have an image of two crescent moons impressed onto them, has become the region’s socially acceptable stimulant alternative to Western speed or cocaine. Because it is a synthetic drug made in a lab it’s far cheaper and quicker to produce than cocaine and easier to distribute because there is less heat on captagon. 

The drug initially became notorious outside of the Middle East as one allegedly given out to boost the energy of ISIS fighters and taken by the jihadists who carried out the massacre at on the Bataclan in Paris in 2015, but this has been dismissed as propaganda spread by officials in the West.     


A young boy sells bread in Syria's northern city of Raqa, in September 2022. Photo by Delil Souleiman/ AFP via Getty Images.

Pills can be bought for as little as $1 in Syria, where they are used recreationally, as an aid to working long hours, and as an appetite suppressant by people facing long food queues. By the time the pills reach the Gulf states and the drug’s biggest market in Saudi Arabia – a country in which a quarter of the world’s amphetamine seizures were made in 2019, and where there is a huge demand for the pill among bored young people –they can be worth up to $25 each. 


The market for captagon is rapidly expanding and some individual seizures of captagon have been huge. In July 2020, 84 million captagon pills from Syria worth an estimated $1 billion were seized at the port of Salerno in Italy, and in March last year 94 million pills were found at the port of Klang in Malaysia.  


A Tupolev strategic bomber at Russia's Hmeymim airbase in the Syrian port of Latakia in February 2022. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Most of Syria’s captagon is produced and dispatched from regime-controlled areas, such as around the capital Damascus and the port of Latakia, which is home to a Russian airbase. Pills are smuggled overland into Jordan and Lebanon and by container ships in everything from fruit and medical equipment to pickles and plastic food made to look like oranges and limes. Last year Saudi Arabia banned the transit of fruit from Lebanon after finding 5.3 million captagon pills hidden in a consignment of pomegranates. 

The profits do not go back into the Syrian economy. Instead they are sucked up by armed militias and powerful individuals including president Assad himself, Yazigi, the Syrian economics expert said.

“Overwhelmingly revenues from the trade go to the pocket of powerful regime cronies, thugs and Iranian-affiliated militias, the people who are very harmful to the Syrian population, the people with blood on their hands,” said Yazigi. 


“These individuals are not using the money to improve Syria’s infrastructure, they are buying real estate or storing it in bank accounts in Dubai. It is totally unlikely that Bashar is not benefitting from captagon, there is no reason why he would allow so many people around him to make big money without him making money. Given his control of the country, the security services, and the economic and political landscape, it’s very likely he gets a big share of that money.”

The captagon trade is key to the Syrian economy because the revenue from captagon comes in dollars. Because of this, Yazigi says the Syrian government has become reliant on the trade. “The regime is not going to give up the trade. It makes too much money. But the revenue the trade provides for the regime makes it less likely to carry out any concessions, so that is harmful to Syrian society.”

He said the trade could also be used as leverage by the Syrian authorities to demand money from neighbouring countries who want to reduce the impact of captagon on their population. 

“The regime could be telling governments, for example the Saudis, ‘if you want to stop all these young people using captagon in your country, we can help you, by putting a break on captagon supply, but you have to give us money to compensate for our loss’. It won't be in any official language, but more like ‘we are having difficulty controlling our borders, we can do more, but what can you give us in exchange?’”   


A report on Syria’s captagon trade published earlier this year by US think tank Newlines Institute said nearly 800 million pills had been seized in the last seven years. It concluded: “Elements of the Syrian government are key drivers of the captagon trade, with ministerial-level complicity in production and smuggling, using the trade as a means for political and economic survival amid international sanctions. The Syrian government appears to use local alliance structures with other armed groups such as Hezbollah for technical and logistical support in captagon production and trafficking.”

Lister said seizures of the drug have been rising across the region, including in Turkey and Iraq and there are new flows of the drug into north Africa. He said despite tight border security around Israel’s borders, in the last few months intelligence sources have told him there has also been small scale seizures of Syrian captagon in Israel and the West Bank. 

With the help of what Lister says is the “embedded nature of corruption” at Syrian borders and with “senior people permitting this trade to continue”, Jordan has turned from being a transit country for the drug into being a full blown market with high levels of use. So much so that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has installed a team in Jordan dedicated to tackling the captagon trade.


Lister said despite this, Syria’s drug business is not high on the West’s agenda. “Geopolitically-wise this is enormous, it’s unprecedented in scale, so we have to ask ourselves, why is this not being tackled more determinedly?” 

Yazigi said Syria’s drug industry is not a big issue for the West, because unlike the Mexican cartels, captagon has not yet reached Europe or the US. “The comparison for me between Syria and Mexico’s drug industries is difficult to make. But what we can say for sure is it’s not as big a political issue as the Mexican cartels, simply because captagon is not going to the US or Europe,” he said. 

Lister acknowledged the fact the US Congress last week approved a new Captagon Bill to target the Syrian regime’s involvement in the trade. But he agrees with Yazigi, and says the US government wants to keep the Syrian crisis at “arms length”, so is trying to keep the issue off the political agenda. 

“In September this year the State Department’s list of major illicit drug producing countries again failed to include Syria,” said Lister, “despite the fact that it is from Syria that we are seeing the biggest drug production and export in the world.”