A little-known drug brought billions to Syria’s coffers. Now it’s a bargaining chip
Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Captagon, a drug that is relatively unknown outside the Middle East, helped Syria turn into a narco-state after much of the international community cut off its economy due to its brutal crackdown on an uprising in 2011.
It is a synthetic amphetamine-type stimulant, fenethylline, which goes by the trade name captagon, and has become the center of an increasing number of drug busts across the Middle East. Experts say the vast majority of global captagon production occurs in Syria, with the Gulf region being its primary destination.
The growth of the industry has raised alarms in the international community. Last year, the US introduced the 2022 US Captagon Act, which linked the trade to the Syrian regime and called it a “transnational security threat.”
After more than a decade of boycotting him, Syria’s Arab neighbors are now in talks to bring President Bashar al-Assad in from the cold. The Syrian leader has been received in some Arab capitals, but he is yet to be awarded the ultimate normalization with Saudi Arabia, one of Syria’s staunchest foes – and the biggest market for its drugs.
Following the deadly February 6 earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria, Saudi relief planes landed for the first time in a decade at regime-controlled airports. And last month, Saudi state media reported Riyadh was in talks with Damascus to resume providing consular services between the two countries.
Analysts say captagon is likely to be high on the agenda in attempts at normalization.
Saudi media has been sounding the alarm lately over the rise in drug use. In September, Saudi authorities announced the largest seizure of illicit drugs in the country’s history after nearly 47 million amphetamine pills were hidden in a flour shipment and seized at a warehouse in the capital Riyadh. Millions more pills have been intercepted since. The UN says amphetamine seizures in the region refer predominantly to captagon.
“Captagon has been touted as a ‘card’ in rapprochement talks between the Syrian regime and counterparts pursuing normalization,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute in Washington, DC, who has studied the captagon trade.
“The regime has been leveraging its agency over the captagon trade, signaling to states considering normalization that they could reduce captagon trafficking as a goodwill gesture,” Rose told CNN.
Exported by several actors, including Syrian smugglers, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and pro-Iranian Iraqi militias, “the captagon smuggling is worth more than Syria’s legal export,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and an expert on the topic. Hezbollah has denied ties to any drug trades.
The United Kingdom, which last month imposed new sanctions on Syrians connected to the trade, said the Assad regime has benefited from the captagon trade to the tune of $57 billion. It described it as a “financial lifeline” for Assad that is “worth approximately three times the combined trade of the Mexican (drug) cartels.”
Syrian state media regularly reports on captagon drug busts, saying that the interior ministry is cracking down on its trade as well as that of other narcotics.
Salah Malkawi, a Jordanian analyst who follows the trade closely, says that despite Syria’s denial, it is impossible for the drug to cross borders without the involvement of several actors closely tied to Assad and his regime.
“Commanders of militias, security agencies, military forces are involved in the drug smuggling operation,” Malkawi said. “The drugs cannot reach these areas without passing through dozens of barriers and checkpoints that fall under the Fourth Division, which is under the leadership of Maher al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian president.”
“I’ve spoken to several (smugglers),” he said. “They have received military training … using war tactics … to carry out sophisticated raids.”
The Syrian government didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Jordan, which supported anti-regime groups at the start of the Syrian civil war, has in recent months also been on the road to rapprochement with Assad.
Its foreign minister this year made his first visit to Damascus since the start of the Syrian civil war and has been sending humanitarian aid following the February 6 earthquake.
Jordan has been directly impacted by Syria’s captagon trade due to the prevalence of its use in border regions in the northeast of the country, said Saud Al-Sharafat, a former brigadier general in the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate, as well as founder of the Shorufat ِCenter for the Study of Globalization and Terrorism in Amman, Jordan.
“There is also the high cost of securing the borders and the increase in pressure on the armed forces and security services,” Al-Sharafat told CNN.
He welcomed the US Captagon Act as “the first serious international effort” to prevent the regime from expanding its use of the drug “to destabilize security in the region and the world.” Syria could potentially flood Europe and Western countries with the drug through Turkey and use it as a bargaining chip against them, he said.
But even if agreements are reached between Syria and its neighbors over stopping exports of the drug, experts say it is unlikely that Assad will fully abandon the trade.
“That’s asking the key trafficker to stop his business,” Felbab-Brown said. “It is very unlikely that the Assad regime would give up on its crucial revenue source.”
At best, he may offer cosmetic solutions to the problem, experts say, promising tighter restrictions and tougher law enforcement at home on producers and traders, whom the regime denies it is involved with.
Rose of the New Lines Institute said that the regime may maintain its captagon businesses as a form of long-term leverage against its neighbors, while maintaining “some level of plausible deniability with the trade, blaming opposition forces and non-state actors, while undertaking a wave of cosmetic seizures at home to shift the blame away from the government.”
Nadeen Ebrahim contributed to this report.
Israeli’s spy agency encouraged protests against government, leaked US report says
A leaked US intelligence report about Israel has sparked outrage in Jerusalem. The report, produced by the CIA and sourced to signals intelligence, says that Israel’s main intelligence agency, the Mossad, had been encouraging protests against the country’s new government – “including several explicit calls to action.” The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office responded on the Mossad’s behalf Sunday morning, calling the report “mendacious and without any foundation whatsoever.” It added: “The Mossad and its senior officials did not – and do not – encourage agency personnel to join the demonstrations against the government, political demonstrations or any political activity.”
- Background: Highly classified Pentagon documents leaked online in recent weeks have provided a rare window into how the US spies on allies and foes alike, deeply rattling US officials, who fear the revelations could jeopardize sensitive sources and compromise important foreign relationships. Some of the documents, which US officials say are authentic, expose the extent of US eavesdropping on key allies, including South Korea, Israel and Ukraine.
- Why it matters: Israel has faced months of protests against a controversial plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government to weaken the judiciary. The protests, which were supported by some elements of the military and security services, have slightly waned since Netanyahu announced a delay of the plan two weeks ago, but the country remains deeply divided on the matter.
Saudi and Omani delegations arrive in Yemen for talks with Houthi leaders
Delegations of Saudi and Omani negotiators arrived in Yemen’s capital Sana’a on Saturday for talks with Houthi leaders, according to the Houthi-run news agency Saba. The Saudi and Omani delegations will meet with the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi Al-Mashat, to discuss “lifting the siege with all its repercussions, stopping the aggression, and restoring all the rightful rights of the Yemeni people, including the payment of salaries of all state employees from oil and gas revenues,” Saba reported, citing sources. Houthi officials also said 13 prisoners released by Saudi authorities as part of a prisoner swap had arrived at Sanaa International Airport on Saturday.
- Background: The talks – involving top level officials – are part of ongoing efforts to negotiate a permanent ceasefire agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement who have been at war in Yemen since 2015. The discussions come following a surprise Chinese-brokered rapprochement between regional arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, which has raised hopes for an end to hostilities.
- Why it matters: Yemen’s war is seen as the main proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since the Saudi-led war in the country started, the Houthis have launched hundreds of missiles on Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser degree, the United Arab Emirates. A ceasefire would bring calm to Saudi Arabia’s 1,300-kilometer (808-mile) border with Yemen as the kingdom focuses its effort on economic diversification.
Controversial Israeli minister joins thousands of settlers marching to illegal outpost in occupied West Bank
Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir joined thousands of Israeli settlers marching to an illegal outpost in the occupied West Bank on Monday afternoon. The rally was organized by activist groups who want to legalize the outpost at Evyatar. A spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas described the march as an “invasion of settler militias, led by ministers from the Israeli occupation government,” that “does not change the fact that it is Palestinian land,” according to the Palestinian News Agency WAFA.
- Background: Israeli settlers left Evyatar in 2021 after a deal with the government of then-prime minister Naftali Bennett, which saw them leave on condition that the buildings would remain. Evyatar sits on a hilltop known locally as Jabal Subeih. The site is seen as strategic, a high point along a corridor linking Tel Aviv to the Jordan Valley.
- Why it matters: With a new Israeli government now in power, the settlers are campaigning to legalize the outpost. The march comes after the United States last month summoned Israel’s ambassador in Washington over the Israeli parliament’s vote to roll back 2005 legislation that previously ordered the evacuation of four Israeli settlements established in the northern West Bank.
Abu Dhabi technology company e& has agreed to take a 50.3% stake in a super app managed by Careem, Uber’s Middle East subsidiary, in a transaction valued at $400 million, Reuters cited the company as saying on Monday. The ride-hailing business will be separated from the Careem super app business and will be fully owned by Uber. The super app offers services outside its core ride-hailing business such as food delivery, bike rentals, digital payments and courier services.
A video of an imam leading prayer in a mosque as a surprise furry guest abruptly joins his congregation went viral on social media, with many praising the Muslim prayer leader for keeping his cool as the cat climbs up his chest and rests on his shoulder.
The clip of imam Walid Mehsas, which was captured at a mosque in Algeria, garnered millions of views and was picked up by international media channels.
The video even triggered a cartoon drawing of the moment by artist Karim Saidi, which was also shared widely on social media, and started a debate about Islam’s position on cats. Unlike dogs, Islam considers cats to be clean enough to be allowed into mosques, and the felines can often be seen roaming around worshippers.
Speaking in a video published on his official Facebook page, Mehsas on Saturday said the incident was spontaneous. He also urged worshipers to remember that Islam dictates mercy towards all animals, and denied rumors that the Algerian government rewarded him for his kindness to the animal.