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US readies strategy to target Syria’s Captagon trade

In the coming weeks, the Biden administration will submit to Congress an interagency plan to tackle the Syrian regime's multi-billion-dollar drug business.
Seized drugs, including Captagon, are displayed for the media in the town of Marea, in the northern Aleppo countryside, on May 24, 2022, following clashes among different Turkey-backed factions in Syria. - A decade of appalling civil war has left Syria fragmented and in ruins but one thing crosses every frontline: the drug fenethylline, commercially known as captagon. The stimulant -- once notorious for its association with Islamic State fighters -- has spawned an illegal $10-billion industry that not only

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will soon release a congressionally mandated strategy to stem the flow of Captagon, an illegal amphetamine driving much of the debate over whether Syria’s neighbors should re-engage with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.  

Twelve years after the country descended into bloody civil war, Syria has emerged as the global hub for Captagon. Western officials say the highly addictive drug has become a main source of revenue for the regime, helping fill its coffers in the face of broad economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies. 

Authorities across the Middle East and southern Europe have seized billions of dollars' worth of Captagon in recent years that they say originated from government-controlled parts of Syria. It is then typically smuggled overland to Jordan before making its way to the Gulf, where it is widely used recreationally among young people. 

An estimated 80% of the world’s Captagon supply is now produced in Syria, where Western officials say Assad’s relatives and associates have created a lucrative illicit enterprise with the help of the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon and Iran-backed militias. 

Major players also include the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, which is commanded by Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad. The president’s cousin, Samer Kamal al-Assad, is said to oversee Captagon facilities in the port city of Latakia in coordination with the Fourth Division. 

A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023, which President Joe Biden signed in December, requires the administration to submit to Congress a written strategy detailing its interagency plan to “deny, degrade, and dismantle Assad-linked narcotics production and trafficking networks,” including through diplomatic and intelligence support as well as training to law enforcement in affected countries. 

Ethan Goldrich, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Syria and the Levant, said Thursday that the administration will deliver its strategy in the coming weeks. 

Last year, Congress similarly required the administration to produce a report on the Assad family’s wealth, but critics said the report offered little beyond what was already known.

Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., who sponsored the original legislation requiring an interagency strategy on Captagon, described the drug as “a huge source of funding for Assad and his terror regime.” 

“As this drug has grown to be produced on an industrial scale by Assad, his family and his regime, we also have the risk of it getting into transnational drug networks and finding its way across to the Western Hemisphere,” Hill told Al-Monitor in an interview. 

The administration is drawing up its plan at a time when Arab countries are welcoming Assad back into the fold, in hopes that engagement with the once-shunned Syrian leader could yield modest concessions from him, including creating safe conditions for refugee returns, reducing Iran's influence in Syria and halting the flow of Captagon. 

“They believe that they've tried everything, and now the only thing they haven't tried is to actually work with the Syrian regime,” said Karam Shaar, a political economist and non-resident senior fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington.  

Speaking at a New Lines event Thursday, Shaar said there is value in low-level intelligence cooperation between Syria and its regional states who are combating Captagon, such as sharing the names of smugglers following a drug bust. 

"That should not be done at the expense of the political process or giving any concessions that actually empower the regime," Shaar added.  

Assad’s steady rehabilitation has created friction between Washington and some of its key partners in the region, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have come to the conclusion that a decade of US-led isolation of Assad has failed to change course in Syria. 

In defiance of the United States and its European allies, the Arab League voted this month to reinstate Syria, which was suspended in 2011 following its violent crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy uprising.  

The Biden administration has voiced its disapproval over Assad's rehabilitation and encouraged states who seek closer ties with Assad to ensure they get something in return. 

“If they’re engaging on it, we hope that they will be able to pursue the same kinds of objectives that we're pursuing, and just see how far they get with it,” Goldrich said during the New Lines event. 

Steven Heydemann, a nonresident senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, said that so far, there are no indications that the regime has cut back on its smuggling, nor have countries scaled back their efforts to interdict those shipments. 

“The question is whether this is a bargaining phase that will ultimately lead to some kind of understanding in which the Assad regime is compensated, most likely not by Jordan but by Gulf states, in exchange for reducing its production and export of Captagon,” Heydemann said. 

Washington, meanwhile, has pledged to continue its own policy of isolating the regime, both diplomatically and through sanctions. In late March, the Biden administration blacklisted more than half a dozen key figures involved in Syria's Captagon trade, including several relatives of Assad. 

The sanctions were the Biden administration’s first use of the so-called Caesar Act, a Trump-era law that allows for sanctions on persons or companies that do business with the Syrian government.   

Lawmakers are pushing bipartisan legislation that would broaden the Caesar Act to include more stringent sanctions and bar the US government from ever recognizing Assad. A vote in the House is expected this summer. 

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