Drug trafficking in the Levant is a significant phenomenon, and reportedly on the rise, particularly in cannabis and synthetic narcotics, and, to a lesser degree, opioids, since the war in Syria began. The Levant serves primarily as a transit zone for shipments of such high-value drugs bound for the Gulf states, Turkey and Europe.
Heroin originating from Afghanistan is trafficked through Iran and Iraq, entering Syria (concentrated in Damascus, Aleppo and along the coast) for redistribution into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and onward to Europe. Notable hubs in the drug trade include the Syrian port cities of Tartous and Latakia, near the borders of Lebanon and Turkey, respectively.
In Syria’s western regions, actors involved in the drug trade are closely connected with Lebanese counterparts concentrated primarily in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. As both countries have access to the sea and most of Lebanon – to its north and east – borders with Syria, illicit goods, including drugs, are able to pass to and from the neighbouring countries with relative ease.
Drug flows from Syria also pass through Jordan’s northern border, through towns such as Al-Mafraq, coinciding with the influx of refugees, and are transported south towards Egypt and the Arabian Gulf. Although there is comparably less information on drug routes between Syria and Iraq, border towns, such as Al-Qa’im, on the Euphrates, and Sulaimani in Iraqi Kurdistan, have been identified as smuggling hubs.
Synthetic drugs, and specifically Captagon, account for a very large portion of Syria drug economies. Captagon is exported to Lebanon, and by land, sea and air to the Arabian Peninsula (primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), as well as to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey, and beyond.
Although Captagon production and trafficking was happening in Syria long before the conflict broke out research suggests that the breakdown of the rule of law in the country has allowed production and trafficking of this highly lucrative narcotic to accelerate. For example, along the Syria–Lebanon border between 2013 and 2014, it was estimated that around 30 million pills were seized, nearly double the volume seized the previous year.
In July 2019, Greek authorities seized 33 million Captagon pills, worth more than US$660 million, a value that is greater than all of Syria’s 2017 exports combined.
Most recently in July 2020, a reported 84 million Captagon tablets originating in Syria (with an estimated worth of approximately US$1.13 billion) were seized by Italian law enforcement agencies. The seizure has been described as the largest drug bust of amphetamines in the world, and offers both a clear indication of the continuation of illicit flows amid a global crisis, and a telling illustration of the sheer magnitude of this single illicit market. Recently, the Captagon market has reportedly expanded into neighbouring countries, particularly Lebanon. A surge in seizures in that country suggest that it has transformed from being a transit zone into an alternative point of production.
In 2016, estimates indicate that the Captagon business in Lebanon was worth more than US$1 billion. In April 2019, Lebanese law enforcement confiscated more than 800 000 Captagon pills, worth over US$12 million, with the help of Saudi authorities. An enabling factor for the spillover into Lebanon is availability of the precursor chemicals. Moreover, lack of monitoring of pharmacies and pharmaceutical manufacturing plants have made chemicals used for drug production cheap and easy to obtain.
In addition to synthetic drugs, the market for cannabis has also been on the rise in the region over the past decade due to widespread demand and its low costs (research on Syria revealed that, on average, 100 grams of cannabis does not exceed US$10). Lebanon is one of the most prolific producers of cannabis in the world: a 2016 UNODC assessment indicated that the country is the world’s third-largest producer of hashish. Concentrated primarily in the Beqaa Valley in the east of the country, the cultivation of cannabis dates back to before the country’s civil war era, after which the industry has subsequently flourished. According to one estimate, almost 40% of the available agricultural land in Beqaa is currently used to grow cannabis, which is then distributed throughout the region and abroad.
On 16 March 2020, one day after Lebanon announced a lockdown to stop the spread of COVID19, authorities made the largest cannabis seizure in the country’s history, confiscating about 25 tonnes of cannabis en route to Beirut’s port, bound for Africa.
The sheer size of the seizure suggests that the cannabis market is not only continuing undeterred by the pandemic, but actually growing. In contrast to Lebanon, which firmly serves as both a source and transit country, Jordan and Iraq are described as primarily corridors for the illicit drug trade. The triple border of Jordan, Syria and Iraq is a recognized smuggling hub for the regional illicit drug economy, where seizures of Captagon, methamphetamine and prescription drugs have reportedly been on the rise.
- Suspected drug dealer arrested in possession of 10,000 pills in Mafraq, The Jordan Times, March 2019, http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/suspected-drug-dealer-arrested-possession-10000-pills-mafraq; Drug smuggling attempt foiled at Syrian border, Ammon News, December 2019, http://en.ammonnews.net/article.aspx?articleno=42269#.XkTydmhKg2w.
- Mushreq Abbas, Smugglers easily cross Iraq’s borders, Al-Monitor: The pulse of the Middle East, October 2013, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/smugglers-easily-cross-iraqi-border.html; Kurdistan used by drug traffickers to transmit drugs to other countries: official, NRT News, February 2019, https://www.nrttv.com/En/News.aspx- ?id=10070&MapID=1.
- According to the 2015 INCSR report, ‘Fenethylline pills (an amphetamine-type stimulant, or ATS) are trafficked via the Iraq Syria border for domestic consumption and for shipment to other countries in the Middle East.’ (See Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, The nexus of conflict and illicit drug trafficking in Syria and the wider region, 2016, https://globalinitiative.net/ wp-content/uploads/2016/10/The-nexus-of-conflict-andillicit-drug-trafficking-Syria-and-the-wider-region.pdf).
- Stephen Starr, Syria’s next big export: Illegal pills, OZY, August 2019, https://www.ozy.com/fast-forward/syrias-next-big-export-illegal-pills/95965/.
- Greece seizes record amount of amphetamine Captagon shipped from Syria, Reuters, July 2019, https://www. reuters.com/article/us-greece-drugs/greece-seizes-recordamount-of-amphetamine-captagon-shipped-from-syriaidUSKCN1U01IH.
- Another smuggling attempt of Syrian amphetamines was foiled by Saudi Arabian authorities in May 2020, https://middleeastaffairs.net/2020/...9-mln-amphetamine-pills-in-syrian-containers/.
- Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, The nexus of conflict and illicit drug trafficking in Syria and the wider region, 2016, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/ uploads/2016/10/The-nexus-of-conflict-and-illicit-drug-trafficking-Syria-and-the-wider-region.pdf).
- Captured by Captagon? Lebanon’s evolving illicit drug economy, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2017, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/ uploads/2017/06/TGIATOC-Captured-by-Captagon-Lebanon_s-evolving-illicit-drug-economy-web.pdf.
- Lebanon-Saudi police seizes 800,000 Captagon pills, The National, April 2019, https://www.thenational.ae/ world/mena/lebanon-saudi-police-seizes-800-000-captagon-pills-1.848507
- Phone interview, Syrian judge, October 2019. 24 Captured by Captagon? Lebanon’s evolving illicit drug economy, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2017, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/ uploads/2017/06/TGIATOC-Captured-by-Captagon-Lebanon_s-evolving-illicit-drug-economy-web.pdf.
- Lebanon makes largest ever cannabis drug bust, France 24, April 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200410-lebanon-makes-largest-ever-cannabis-drug-bust.