The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad made a profit of at least $5.7 billion from its booming narcotics trade last year alone, as it continues to smuggle the captagon pills worldwide.
Since 2019, shipments containing tens of millions of captagon pills – a type of highly-addictive narcotic used as an alternative to amphetamine – have been caught and intercepted throughout the Mediterranean and the Gulf region. Popular recorded cases include the Saudi authorities' interception of 44 million pills in April 2020 and Italian authorities seizure of over 84 million pills.
Those pills are hidden in basic and unsuspecting items being shopped across the world, including paper rolls, rubber tyres, and machine components. Many initially thought that the terror group Daesh was responsible for their production and distribution.
It was later discovered, however, that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its affiliated militias produce the drugs and carry out smuggling operations across the Middle East and Europe in an effort to procure funds and circumvent international sanctions.
A report by the German newspaper Der Spiegel further cements that fact, revealing that the Assad regime is making lucrative profits from the illegal trade. Citing the Washington-based New Lines Institute, it said that a conservative estimate of the profits amount to at least $5.7 billion in 2021 alone, while other Western think tanks and intelligence agencies put the total profits from the Syrian narcotics smuggling trade in the tens of billions.
Those estimates are at least several times higher than the country's legal exports, meaning that the heavily-sanctioned Assad regime is surviving primarily from the profits of that illegal worldwide trade. Many have dubbed Assad's Syria a 'narco state'.
"I believe the Assad regime would not survive the loss of the Captagon revenues," the German newspaper quoted former US special envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, as saying. Assad, his regime, and his family network are not outsiders of just indirect beneficiaries of the trade, he insisted, but "They are the cartel."
According to the report, a key figure at the head of the captagon smuggling operations is Maher al-Assad – the brother of president Assad – and his Fourth Army Division, which commands and controls the shipments of the product leaving the northern port of Latakia. That military unit reportedly earns $300,000 for every container, making it a key stakeholder and beneficiary from the trade.
The Der Spiegel report also reveals the involvement of figures and businessmen with links to Europe, who were identified after phone communications were intercepted by European authorities and investigative teams. One of those figures was a Syrian businessman identified as Iyad C., who led the logistics of the smuggling operations and who lived in a variety of locations including the German city of Speyer where his family fled to in 2015.
With investigators linking over a ton of hashish and over a ton of Captagon – with a street value of around 130 million euros ($135.5 million) – to Iyad C. and his team, the man was recently arrested in Germany while visiting his family. His trial is set to begin soon in the German city of Essen, along with the trial of two other Syrians and an Algerian.
Investigators also further proved that the individual and his team had direct connections with the Assad regime's in their operations, as one of the suspected accomplices – Mohamad B. – was heard bragging in an intercepted phone conversation about his ongoing excellent and friendly ties with Assad family members.
Another revelation provided by the report was that the true intended destination for the captagon pills are the Gulf Arab nations, and that the pills are purposefully sent to Europe to be intercepted by border authorities in an effort to deceive Saudi and Emirati customs officials. Those pills that do make it uncaught are then repackaged and sent to the Gulf, as the Arab border officials will hardly ever examine containers coming from Europe.
According to the report, an anonymous German official stressed that "The shipments are too lucrative. A container that can bring in hundreds of millions of euros – that attracts criminals like flies. We have to put a stop to it." He added that the Syrian authorities "are producing the stuff like there's no tomorrow."