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Jun 14, 2023

On the Road Again

Over the past year, I led a team of researchers at OPEN-Syria to study the ensuing narcotics crisis in the Middle East and the role of the Assad regime.

The report benefitted from discussions in London, Istanbul, Geneva, Oxford, and Washington DC.

Key findings:

• The report compiled and classified 1251 publicly announced drug seizures in or related to Arab Asia between 2016 and 2022. The region’s previous drug of choice—hashish—has been replaced, thanks to the explosion in captagon production.

• Where do these drugs originate from? Much of the supply of the two most prevalent drugs, captagon and hashish, originates from regime-held Syria. Actors in areas outside the regime’s control and Lebanon are far from innocent, but they play a less significant role.

• Consumption of captagon outside the Middle East is virtually nonexistent. Yet, some shipments take routes as far as Malaysia before returning, to disguise their origin and thereby lower the likelihood of being thoroughly inspected, if at all, in consumer countries.

• The primary consumer market, Saudi Arabia, seizes by far the largest amounts. Small amounts are seized in the areas where most captagon originates: Assad regime areas. (Isn't that telling!)

• For the long routes to be feasible, average shipments tend to be larger. The seizure tool shown here is not publicly available.

• The network database collected for this research contains 712 nodes (441 individuals and 271 entities/actor groups). The two largest clusters belong to the Fourth Armoured Division and Hezbollah. The interactive network tool is not publicly available.

• The vast majority of edges tying the nodes are informal (collaboration, friendship, etc.), making the network extremely resilient to various means of targeting and disruption.

• Assad-aligned entities, such as the Fourth Armoured Division, the Military Intelligence Directorate, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the National Defence Forces, are responsible for much of the supply from Syria, with at least nine members of Assad’s extended family involved.

• Iranian-backed actors in the east, such as the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, are increasingly implicated. While elements of Syrian opposition forces are involved in narcotics production and smuggling, their role remains marginal.

• Narcotics kingpins and facilitators roam regime-held Syria with near-total impunity. With the ongoing window-dressing drug seizures in regime-held Syria and arrests of only fringe actors, Assad leaves little to the imagination that he sponsors the industry.

• The market for captagon tends to be exaggerated, primarily because of the unrealistic assumption that 10 times the amount seized finds its way to final consumers. We estimate the profits for the actors in regime-held Syria and Lebanon to be $2.4 billion per year.

• The report makes some policy recommendations.

A shout out to Wael Alwani, Dima Mohammad, Mohammad Orwani, and the anonymized field researchers for doing much of the heavy lifting.

Also, thanks to Steven Heydemann, Caroline Rose, Eyad Hamid, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Linkurious, Malek Deyranieh, Traci Lawrence, and Alexander Langlois.

The report can be accessed here:

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