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Is the Drug Trade Really Driving Normalization With Syria?

Caroline Rose

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Damascus’ rehabilitation will continue full-steam ahead, regardless of counter-narcotics initiatives.

After more than a decade of isolation, the Assad regime is now moving toward normalizing ties with its Middle Eastern neighbors. The governments of the region are not just restoring economic and commercial relations with the war-torn country but are also willing to deal directly with Damascus. This new approach has extended to cooperation on the illicit trade of captagon, an amphetamine-type stimulant whose popularity has soared in recent years. Coinciding with an uptick in captagon trafficking to Middle Eastern markets, particularly in the Arab Gulf, the issue has risen to the top of the agenda in regional normalization talks with Damascus – ignoring the key fact that elements of the Syrian regime are themselves responsible for the bulk of captagon production and trafficking in the region. But the growing prominence of the drug trade in the Syria rapprochement talks has prompted questions about what’s behind this sudden shift.

The Captagon Trade

While captagon has been traded throughout the Middle East for at least two decades, production and trafficking operations have exploded in recent years. The drug has become popular with a wide range of demographic groups, but little is known about its chemical composition. The few laboratory tests that have been done found that the pill can contain between zero and 45 percent amphetamine, as well as other components like caffeine, quinine, procaine and even toxic levels of copper and zinc. While the primary destination markets are in the Arab Gulf (particularly Saudi Arabia), production is concentrated in regime-controlled Syrian territory and Lebanon’s Qalamoun Mountain range.

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