Why Is Syria’s Dictatorship Being Rehabilitated? Captagon.

The amphetamine has become massive across the Middle East, fuelled by the Syrian dictator’s war machine. Now, he's being embraced by other leaders – if he cracks down on the drug.
captagon syria assad
Captagon being smuggled in a fake orange in Lebanon, 2021. PHOTO: ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images.

Syria has been welcomed back into the Arab League on the provision that the regime stops the massive flow of captagon into neighbouring countries – but experts say the dictatorship is unlikely to seriously crack down on an industry worth an estimated $10 billion a year.

The Damascus government has long been designated as a narco-state for its hand in the industrial-level production of the pill that has been flooding the drug markets across the region and the rest of the world. 


Captagon is an amphetamine used widely across the Middle East, from rich party boys to people working on construction sites in sweltering temperatures. A long list of people in the inner circle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been sanctioned internationally by the US and Europeans for their role in the lucrative drug trade.

Experts researching the Syrian regime’s involvement in the drug trade say that this makes it all but certain that Assad only intends to carry out “cosmetic” measures to show he is complying with the Arab League’s demands for a crackdown on captagon. 

Assad's “re-embrace” at the regional summit of the Arab League – a loose confederation of 22 Arab states – in Saudi Arabia last month signified the early stages of a potential normalisation with leaders who had once placed their bets on Syria’s opposition movement to overthrow his government.

Part of this deal involves Assad reducing production and supply of captagon, which he claims is manufactured by rebel groups.

He may do small-scale busts to appear as though he is tackling the crisis, but he is unlikely to make any serious moves to end the trade, according to Caroline Rose, a director at the New Lines Institute in Washington DC.  

“I definitely see the regime boosting arrests in relation to captagon, and then also going after opposition forces and small networks that really do not hit the core of the large-scale production and trafficking networks that are allied with the regime,” Rose told VICE News. 


“Captagon is an interesting substance because it has many different sides. Other drugs have a time and a place to take them, and an appropriate setting, for the most part. Whereas for captagon, you can use it really pretty much for anything,” she added.

“Many people are attracted to captagon while facing food insecurity, because it saves the need to have three meals a day. So a lot of poor populations and communities [say] it allows them to save money. Additionally, it lets you to stay up for days at a time. This is very anecdotal, but there was one user who said they didn't sleep for about three days while using captagon,” said Rose. 

After more than a decade of war and heavy sanctions from the West, the Assad regime is being propped up by the production of the stimulant – now by far the country’s biggest export. 

Captagon was originally developed in Germany during the 1960s to address attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy.  In the last decade, it has gained notoriety as the ‘Jihadi pill’, an urban myth often associated with radical Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.  

While it is not used in the West, captagon has since spread widely across the Arab world because it is cheap and easily available in a region where alcohol and “party” drug use remain taboo. Last month, the Saudi government launched a campaign urging users to come forward to state-run rehabilitation centres with promises of keeping their identity secret.


The Syrian regime has long denied any involvement and blamed “terrorists” for manufacturing the mix of cheap amphetamine, caffeine and fillers in home labs, but it has become clear that the Syrian government is involved in an industrial scale in areas under regime control. Warlords and profiteers indebted to the regime make, move and sell the small, yellow pills with trademark two crescent moons, which are nicknamed Abu al-Hilalain, “the one with the two moons”. Assad’s brother, Maher, is understood to be one of the trade’s key players who also leads the notorious 4th Armoured Division of the Syrian army.

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The Syrian Civil War, which has killed at least 300,000 people and displaced more than half of Syria’s pre-war population, has led to the explosion of the drug. The country is divided into three regions, with Assad remaining in charge in Damascus thanks to Russian and Iranian support, the Kurds holding on to a vast area in the northeast with support from a US-led coalition to combat IS, and the remainder of the once-strong Arab rebel groups cornered in the northwest Idlib region. 

Assad's inner circle has resorted to exploiting the captagon trade to finance the war in the face of crippling sanctions from European and US authorities – which has only led to more sanctions. The US sanctioned two Syrian money transfer businesses this week over their alleged involvement in making transfers for people designated to be a part of the captagon industry.


Despite this, his government has pledged to crack down on “drug smugglers” along its borders during discussions with foreign ministries from Jordan and Iraq in April.

Last month, the Jordanian air force carried out an unusual airstrike in southern Syria on an alleged “drug smuggling kingpin”, killing Marai al-Ramthan, his wife and six children, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, acting on information supplied by Damascus.

Lina Khatib, the director of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies Middle East Institute, told VICE News that while Assad may try to portray himself as the “winner of the war”, the country remains deeply divided.

“Assad will undoubtedly seek to exploit these issues to bolster his political legitimacy and secure funding for new construction projects under the guise of humanitarian aid,” said Khatib.

Assad's reentry into the Arab League shows how he has played the captagon card to his advantage. But even if the dictator still presents himself as the only legitimate solution to lead Syria, it will take more than easing the flow of amphetamines to Arab neighbours for him to be rehabilitated by the rest of the world.

“What we might anticipate is a partial reduction in captagon flows to destinations like Saudi Arabia. But this may well mean that the Assad regime and its partners in the drug trade will try to find alternative markets, perhaps elsewhere in the world. The reasons that drive people to consume captagon are not exclusive to the Arab world. The cartels that deal drugs in Syria also operate worldwide,” Khatib said.