How Does the Captagon Act Help Lebanon?
The House of Representatives recently passed the Captagon Act, legislation “requir[ing] a strategy by the United States Government to disrupt and dismantle the Captagon trade and narcotics networks of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.”
Introduced by Rep. French Hill (R-AR) with 17 bipartisan sponsors, the act calls for an interagency strategy to destroy the regime-backed network. It will need Senate approval to become law.
Captagon is a stimulant popular both in the Levant and in the Gulf. Its effects take about an hour to kick in and it gives one a sense of alertness or euphoria. For this reason, it is routinely used by combatants in the region’s conflicts, partygoers in the wealthy Gulf States, or those struggling to make a living such as one man who remarked:
“I can work for two or three days non-stop, which has doubled my earnings and is helping me pay off my debts.”
The Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) notes that captagon production shifted to Syria around the early 2000’s because Europe began to step up its own drug enforcement efforts.
The network is growing and professionalizing, now expanding its operations to more dangerous drugs such as crystal meth. In 2020, the value of the trade in the region was estimated at $3.46 billion in 2020.
Sources identify Maher Al-Assad, the president’s brother who controls Syria’s 4th Division, as the prime trader of the drug.
How does this connect to Lebanon?
COAR notes that in the mid 2000’s Lebanon’s weak central state and inability to enforce anti-trafficking efforts opened the door for the industry to develop within its borders. Reports suggest that Iran even provided actors within Lebanon with drug equipment following the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war. In 2007, Lebanon was the first country in the region to have a captagon lab identified and reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Caroline Rose with the New Lines Institute has done extensive research on this and notes that the Assad regime relies on fellow armed groups such as Hezbollah for technical and logistical support. The labs in Syria are often in Hezbollah-controlled territory in communities along the Lebanese border, outside Damascus, and around the port city of Latakia.
Lebanon’s porous border with Syria is a key transit route for traffickers of the drug.
Furthermore, Lebanese border towns are struggling under the influence of the trade.In addition to corruption within the judiciary, there are credible reports of kidnapping and torture for local residents who stand up against the trade.
The association that the international community is making between Lebanon and captagon trafficking is also hurting Lebanon’s economy. In April, Saudi Arabia placed a ban on all agricultural imports from Lebanon after authorities seized over 7.8 million captagon pills at the port of Jeddah. Preceding the ban, Former Lebanese Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada remarked that Lebanon’s fruit and vegetable trade with Saudi Arabia was worth around $24 million per year.
Lebanon’s key vulnerability in this situation is its border with Syria. Recent efforts to establish a shared maritime boundary between the two countries are encouraging. However, more must be done to secure Lebanon’s land border with Syria as well. The LAF has called for an additional border unit and less political interference to be able to secure more of Lebanon’s borders. Increased support to the LAF is a crucial element to combating regional drug trafficking.
Competent customs authorities are also vital as the smugglers know how to exploit weaknesses in Lebanon’s legitimate crossing points. One Lebanese official remarked to AFP that “At (Lebanon’s) Tripoli port, for example, the scanner always needs repairing on the wrong day, or is inadvertently switched off.”
Furthermore, law and order in Lebanon are at stake here. Lebanon should not allow these drug traffickers to exploit Lebanese communities any longer. These individuals are criminals and should be prosecuted and imprisoned.
Hopefully the Captagon Act will become law. When it does, Lebanon will be at the centerpiece of US strategy to counter the trade, and the Lebanese people would greatly stand to benefit.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.