The United States can counter the uncontrollable smuggling of Captagon

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On July 1, 2020, US Syria policy received a wake-up call. At the port of Salerno in Italy, authorities identified eighty-five million tablets of captagon, an illicit amphetamine-type drug commonly produced in the Levant. At the time it was the the biggest seizure of amphetamines in history, with proof that the shipment had deep ties to the Syrian regime and security partners such as Hezbollah and Iran-aligned militias – actors who have used captagon production to finance their operations, maintain influence and circumvent the effects of sanctions.

Two years after the seizure of the port of Salerno, the eighty-five million tablets seized by Italian authorities now pale in comparison to the size of seizures made in the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and even in South East Asia. World records for seizures have been broken as far from Syria as the Malaysian port of Klang, where nearly ninety-five million tablets believed to have come from the Levant were grasped in March 2021.

The value of the captagon trade also rapidly exploded. The market value of the trade was estimated at value $3.46 billion in 2020, a value that grown up to around $5.7 billion in 2021, according to a report by the New Lines Institute. Captagon producers and traffickers have also become more sophisticated in their smuggling abilities, hiding tablets in the skin of pomegranatestomato paste lids jarswasher and dryer machinerylift machineryand even the cattle intestines.

Captagon has also had serious security implications, with Syrian smugglers initiating fatal clashes with border security and military forces, raising concerns in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. In addition, the chemical composition of the drug has changed, encompassing not only higher concentrations of amphetamine, but also harmful substances additiveslike ephedrine, quinine and metals like copper and zincthat are dangerous to the drug’s growing consumer base.

This year, the region has already seen an acceleration in the captagone trade. In Jordan, authorities reported higher rates of seized captagon in the first three months of this year than in all of 2021. In Iraq, reports of increased use, addiction and seizure rates have increased. In the Persian Gulf, millions of pills continue to flood the ports, now in the form of tablets and powder form, suggesting that production could develop closer to destination markets. New transit sites have also sprung up, with recent shipments being sent to To go and seized in Nigeria– countries that were once well off the beaten track of the captagon trade.

As captagon mushrooms into one of the largest illicit trades in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, a US policy to manage the captagon trade, not to mention a long-term strategy to disrupt the harmful effects of trade, remains remarkably absent. Since the mid-2010s, trade has transformed into several billion dollars source of revenue for state and non-state adversaries of the US and US-sanctioned entities such as the Assad regime, Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

As captagon trade accelerates, the United States has an opportunity to take a proactive approach to mitigating trade on the supply and demand side. The United States must take three steps to achieve this. First, the United States should adopt the strategy described in HR 6265, the Captagon Act, which proposes an interagency process that will identify how malicious actors are using the captagon trade and develop a strategy for the United States to better combat this trade. Second, the United States should complement this process with efforts to establish a mechanism among countries most affected by trade for intelligence sharing and interdiction best practices. Finally, the United States should integrate the captagon challenge into its broader policy in the Mediterranean-Gulf area by identifying ways to increase regional awareness of the drug’s health effects, promote Assad and its partners, and to offer technical assistance and expertise to support harm reduction and rehabilitation.

As Syrian state trafficking continues to accelerate and threaten regional and human security, it is vital that the United States proactively take the first step in countering the Captagone trade. Failure to implement a strategy to disrupt the captagon trade will mark a missed opportunity for the United States to serve as a force for good in the Middle East.

Caroline Rose is a Power Vacuums Program Manager and Senior Analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy and researcher on captagon trade in the Middle East.

Picture: Reuters.

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