November 17, 2023 | 1945

Is Crystal Meth The Next Syrian Narco-Weapon?

November 17, 2023 | 1945

Is Crystal Meth The Next Syrian Narco-Weapon?

Illicit narcotics reportedly fueled Hamas terrorists as they slaughtered Israeli civilians on Oct. 7. Israeli forces apparently found captagon pills stuffed inside the pockets of deceased terrorists, who used the amphetamine-like drug to remain calm and alert during their bloody assault. This discovery is the latest sign that the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad has yet to close up shop on its narco-trafficking operations.

Assad pledged to crack down on the drug trade as part of a deal to end his diplomatic isolation. But his concessions were cosmetic and left him better positioned to wrest additional concessions from his neighbors, the Biden administration, and other international actors. To head off this threat, the U.S. should work with its allies and partners to disrupt trafficking networks and reduce demand before the Syrian regime expands its operations—and funnels drugs to Iran-backed terrorists eager to carry out further attacks.

Assad the Double-Dealer

With an estimated street value of $5.7 billion in 2021, Syria’s captagon exports are very lucrative. Illicit captagon production is a vital source of revenue for the Assad regime. It has grown into a family business, with multiple relatives of the dictator involved in the production and trafficking of the drug.

Captagon is also politically expedient. Damascus has leveraged its narcotics industry to facilitate normalization with Syria’s Arab neighbors. That captagon continues to flood the region shows that Damascus acted skillfully, exchanging empty promises for real diplomatic gains. Assad convinced Amman, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh that he would cooperate on counter-narcotics efforts if the region granted Syria re-entry into the Arab League. The result? Syria regained its seat at the regional table in May, but months later, the industrial-scale production of captagon in Syria and Lebanon, and its distribution into Jordan and the Gulf states, continue undeterred.

At least some states, such as Jordan, are experiencing buyer’s remorse, realizing that they cannot take back their concessions, but Assad can break his word at any time. Despite Syria’s pledge to “deal with the matter,” the Jordanian foreign minister said the kingdom has “seen an increase in smuggling operations” since May. Earlier, King Abdullah claimed that regime officials, Iran, and Iranian proxies “are all taking advantage of” the booming drug trade.

A Deadly Production Pivot

At will, Assad can attempt to extort further concessions by increasing captagon exports. Producers can also increase lethality by pivoting to methamphetamine. There is reason to believe the Assad regime is pursuing the latter route.

Increasingly, regional authorities are intercepting methamphetamine along routes traditionally used to smuggle captagon. A 2021 New York Times investigative report noted that Jordanian seizures of methamphetamine were up 300 percent from the previous year. On Sept. 26, the Jordanian Air Force shot down two methamphetamine-laden drones coming from Syria. Similar incidents occurred in JuneJuly, and August.

The chemical composition of mass-produced Syrian captagon requires only slight modifications to produce methamphetamine, allowing the Assad regime to readily develop a parallel revenue stream.

Methamphetamine is also more dangerous than captagon. Not only is it more addictive, but the risks associated with its abuse are more severe. Methamphetamine can destroy the immune system and lead to organ failure. Overdose can be fatal. Captagon-related deaths, however, are few and far between. In Jordan, the consumer market for methamphetamine is reportedly expanding, giving rise to a serious public health crisis. “Crystal [meth] is becoming more popular than captagon,” one user told Al Jazeera. “Everyone has started taking crystal [meth].”

Widespread drug abuse is also spurring domestic violence. In northwest Syria, women face “physical and sexual assaults” by addicts at home, notes a local psychologist. “Some are even coerced into using or procuring narcotics.” If the Assad regime expands into the methamphetamine market, this grim reality could become even worse.

Pushing Back

To pre-empt this worrisome trend, the United States should work with regional states to disrupt the nascent Syrian methamphetamine industry and reduce demand in destination markets.

On the supply side, multilateral efforts should focus on identifying chemical precursor flows and money laundering networks associated with the Syrian narco-trade. The United States should aid regional states by providing information and advice on how to produce public, written guidance by regulators for regional businesses on the ways that captagon and methamphetamine-related money laundering networks operate in their midst. In this regard, regional ministries of finance can establish trade transparency units, which help identify trade-based money laundering through data-sharing partnerships.

Washington should also work with partners on the ground to improve information-sharing and drug interdiction efforts. Developing intelligence mechanisms outside of INTERPOL is critical now that Syria has rejoined the international law enforcement body. The U.S. government can also expand existing police training programs in Jordan to strengthen counter-narcotics information sharing and training capabilities. This could include joint interdiction efforts and providing targeting data and other assistance to Jordan for additional kinetic action against the captagon network’s infrastructure. Doing so makes it costly for these networks to operate.

As the consumer market for Syrian narcotics grows, the United States can help regional actors strategize on how to best reduce demand at home, including through the expansion of treatment facilities and public information campaigns.

By taking these steps and others, regional states can clearly demonstrate to the Assad regime that they will not bend to Damascus’ narco-blackmail.

Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and Matthew Zweig is Senior Director of Policy at FDD Action.

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