The United States Can Counter Out of Control Captagon Smuggling
As captagon mushrooms into one of the largest illicit trades in the region, a U.S. policy to manage the captagon trade remains notably absent.
On July 1, 2020, the United States’ 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 largest amphetamine seizure in history, with evidence that the shipment had deep ties to the Syrian regime and security partners such as Hezbollah and Iranian-aligned militias—actors that resorted to captagon production to fund their operations, sustain their influence, and bypass the effects of sanctions.
Two years after the Port of Salerno seizure, the eighty-five million tablets seized by Italian authorities now pale in comparison to the size of seizures conducted across the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, and even Southeast Asia. Global seizure records have been broken as far away from Syria as Malaysia’s Port of Klang, where almost ninety-five million tablets believed to have originated in the Levant were seized in March 2021.
The value of the captagon trade has also rapidly boomed. The trade’s market value was estimated to be worth $3.46 billion in 2020, a value that grew to an estimated $5.7 billion in 2021, according to a New Lines Institute report. Captagon producers and traffickers have also become more sophisticated in their smuggling capabilities, hiding tablets inside the skins of pomegranates, the lids of tomato paste jars, washer and dryer machines, elevator machinery, and even the intestines of livestock.
Captagon has also created serious security implications, with Syrian smugglers initiating fatal clashes with border security and military forces, causing concern in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Furthermore, the drug’s chemical composition has shifted, encompassing not only higher concentrations of amphetamine but also harmful additives, such as ephedrine, quinine, and metals like copper and zinc, that are dangerous for the drug’s growing consumer base.
This year, the region has already witnessed an acceleration of the captagon trade. In Jordan, authorities have reported higher rates of seized captagon in the first three months of this year than in all of 2021. In Iraq, reports of increased consumption, dependency, and seizure rates have been on the rise. In the Persian Gulf, millions of pills continue to flood ports, now in both tablet and powder form, suggesting production may be expanding closer to destination markets. New transit sites have also emerged, with recent shipments sent to Togo and seized in Nigeria—countries that were once well off the captagon trade’s beaten path.
As captagon mushrooms into one of the largest illicit trades in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, a U.S. policy to manage the captagon trade, let alone a long-term strategy to disrupt the trade’s malign effects, remains notably absent. Since the mid-2010s, the trade has transformed into a multi-billion-dollar revenue source for state and non-state U.S. adversaries and U.S.-sanctioned entities such as the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
As the captagon trade accelerates, there is an opportunity for the United States to adopt a proactive approach in mitigating the trade from both the supply and demand sides. There are three steps the United States should take to do so. First, the United States should adopt the strategy outlined in H.R. 6265, the Captagon Act, which proposes an inter-agency process that will identify how malign actors are utilizing the captagon trade and strategize how the United States can best combat the trade. Second, the United States should supplement this process with efforts to establish a mechanism between the countries most affected by the trade for intelligence sharing and best practices for interdiction. Finally, the United States should incorporate the captagon challenge into its broader policy in the Mediterranean-Gulf zone by identifying ways to increase regional awareness about the drug’s health effects, promote accountability for the Assad regime and its partners, and offer assistance and technical expertise to support harm reduction and rehabilitation.
As the Syrian state’s trafficking continues to accelerate and challenge regional and human security, it is vital that the United States proactively takes the first step in countering the captagon trade. Failing to implement a strategy to disrupt the captagon trade will mark a missed opportunity for the United States to serve as a force of good in the Middle East.
Caroline Rose is the Head of the Power Vacuums Program and a Senior Analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy and a researcher on the captagon trade in the Middle East.