Captagon Floods Market, May End Civil War

Josh Ashkinaze, Columnist

I don’t think any of us know what the life of a typical Saudi prince is like, but I think everyone would be surprised with what one Saudi prince was up to on Monday. Abd al-Muhsen bin Walid bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud was detained at Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut for trying to smuggle two tons of Captagon — a new amphetamine-type stimulant — on his private plane. TIME calls the Captagon trade “Syria’s Breaking Bad.”

What is Captagon? It was originally an ADHD medication prescribed in the ’60s and was banned in the ’80s because of its addictive potential. Now the drug has made a comeback because of the civil war in Syria. Prescription Captagon was just a mild stimulant, but as factories closed down after the drug was banned, the material to make Captagon became harder to find. So what’s circling the Middle East now is a kind of ’roided-up, Hulk-esque knockoff — something resembling Captagon but adulterated with cheaper and more available substances to give it a stronger kick. These factors make this version of Captagon highly profitable, costing pennies to make but retailing for up to $20 a pill.

The effects of Captagon are increased energy, enhanced self-confidence and a numbness to fear and pain. There are reports of ISIS, Al-Nusra and various other rebel groups using the substance for fighting. There is a huge market for this stimulant — there are estimated to be 1,000 armed groups in the Syrian conflict — and sellers and smugglers have taken notice. Before the Syrian civil war, most of the Middle East’s Captagon was produced in Lebanon, Turkey and Bulgaria before reaching the Gulf countries, mainly Saudi Arabia. Production of Captagon has mirrored political situations. In 2007, for example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime accused Iran of supplying Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite militia, with Captagon factories and production instructions. If Iran did help Hezbollah in this way, this would have provided Hezbollah the cash it needed during the 2006 war with Israel. Because of the strangulating effect economic sanctions had on Iran, it was crucial that Iran adopted the “teach a man to fish” motto in funding Hezbollah.

As the Syrian civil war started, Captagon factories began to shift to Syria for a few reasons. First, there’s a clear breakdown of authority; with the cocktail of anti-Assad rebels, the regime didn’t prioritize checking everyone’s suitcase and every abandoned building. It’s also much easier now to bribe the Syrian government forces who would ordinarily do the arresting, and Syria is a territorial checkerboard. Because of the scattered nature of territorial control, many different groups can make great sums of money by charging smugglers to pass through their territory.

Because of this new political climate, many parties started producing and trafficking Captagon. For example, the Syrian man known as Al Baba has been dubbed the “Robin Hood of Syria.” He was once a rich businessman but has shifted to Captagon production. At first, this was because of profits, but he now uses Captagon to fuel the war, punishing Saudi Arabia by flooding it with the highly addictive drug. Al Baba says this is retribution for Saudi Arabia providing funds to armed groups in Syria and exacerbating the conflict. “My country is now a battleground that has more foreigners fighting than the Syrians themselves,” he said. Various rebel groups without a large funding stream or alternative source of income have also started to sell Captagon to stay afloat. While there is no evidence that the Assad regime produces Captagon, it is widely known that government soldiers and officials either turn a blind eye on the trade or outright accept bribery money from smugglers.

One negative consequence of the Captagon trade is that drug lords and businessmen, not just major countries, can fund rebel groups. This will only worsen the chaos of a region already being torn apart via armed proxies. Even after the political conflict is cleaned up — be it through Assad’s removal or some territorial concession — the challenge of how to deal with the drug dealers and Captagon Heisenbergs will remain.

Paradoxically, the Captagon trade also hints rationality and cooperation. Take Al-Nusra, the Sunni extremist group: One of their five main goals is the establishment of a Syrian-wide Sharia judicial court system. Captagon is clearly against Sharia law. But Al-Nusra admits that it does not shut down factories because to do so is too costly and needlessly alienates villagers. The realities of the Captagon trade has forced even a hardline jihadist group to soften its resolve. Likewise, we can assume that soldiers who have not defected from the Assad regime — unlike those who joined the Free Syrian Army — are indeed loyal to the regime. Now consider that rebel groups traffic and buy Captagon and that the regime is accused of allowing the trafficking of Captagon. So isn’t it likely that in these interactions, regime soldiers have come into contact with rebels, and neither party has killed the other? This is the improbable cooperation that the highly interconnected drug market hints at.

Oddly then, it seems that in the context of the Captagon trade, there is a very unlikely but tangible possibility of peace, rationality and cooperation overcoming violence. To be clear, it would obviously be better if this cooperation between enemies was for an end more constructive than selling drugs. And hopefully, somewhere down the line, that will be the case.