We speak with BBC Arabic correspondent Rasha Qandeel, whose new documentary investigates Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s role in producing the highly addictive amphetamine known as Captagon and how this is impacting his relations with other states in the region. “This is going to be a main factor in a lot of changes in the Middle East,” says Qandeel, who notes that curbing the drug trade has already played a role in recent moves by Arab states to normalize relations with Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re turning now to a new investigation by the BBC that reveals direct links between Syria’s trade in the highly addictive amphetamine drug called Captagon and members of the Armed Forces and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s family.
RASHA QANDEEL: My search reveals the role of Syria’s most powerful family.
MOAZ AL-AHMED: [translated] No smuggler operates without connections to the regime.
RASHA QANDEEL: And I uncover how the Syrian regime itself has become addicted to Captagon.
FORMER ARMY OFFICER: [translated] If Assad stopped the drug trade for 20 days, the economy would collapse.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the opening of the new BBC documentary, Captagon: Inside Syria’s drug trafficking empire. The reporter narrating the piece is Rasha Qandeel, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a presenter for BBC Arabic. She’s going to join us in a minute from Cairo, but first another clip, where she speaks with a Syrian soldier who reveals his role in the Captagon trade. The soldier’s identity is hidden for their safety.
RASHA QANDEEL: Here in government-controlled Aleppo, we hope to find further evidence of the regime’s role. We have to film secretly. This is the rarely seen interior of an army barracks. It’s in a strikingly dilapidated state. We find a soldier willing to speak to us if we hide his identity. He tells us his monthly pay is only about 150,000 Syrian lira.
SOLDIER: [translated] One hundred fifty thousand lira is equivalent to about $25 or $30, barely enough for someone supporting two or three kids. So we become dealers, selling to people. It’s what brings in most of the money now.
RASHA QANDEEL: We ask him to describe his unit’s role in the local Captagon trade.
SOLDIER: [translated] In 2021, I went out in a convoy with my comrades. We weren’t allowed to go to the factory. They’d pick a meeting place, and we’d buy from Hezbollah. The bags would contain one or four or five kilos. They’d decide how to fill them. We’d receive the goods, cover them and leave. We coordinated with the Fourth Division. The leaders would coordinate. The Fourth Division’s task was to facilitate our movement. If there was a traffic jam, they’d clear it, stop the traffic so our convoy could move.
RASHA QANDEEL: Once again, the Syrian Army’s elite Fourth Division is named. So, too, is Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia political party and militant group. They’re close to the Syrian government and have themselves been accused of involvement in drug trafficking.
SOLDIER: [translated] The primary people responsible for manufacturing Captagon pills are Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher al-Assad, in association with Lebanese Hezbolllah. The money goes straight into their pockets.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the new BBC documentary Captagon: Inside Syria’s drug trafficking empire.
For more, we’re joined by Rasha Qandeel.
Welcome to Democracy Now! This is a powerful documentary. “Captagon” may be a new word for people outside of the region. It’s been described as the poor man’s cocaine. Can you tell us about it and how it came to be so prevalent, the production in Syria, but then especially its use in Saudi Arabia?
RASHA QANDEEL: Thank you very much for having me.
This is a sophisticated project by the BBC Arabic news investigations team and the OCCRP. Being the lead reporter of the BBC team on this, we’ve been following in six countries for a year and a half the network, the web. We’ve been building this using witnesses, using unseen evidence, WhatsApp conversations, inside testimonies, a lot of, lot of leads.
So, it is called that, because it’s actually not very new, but it’s new as a substance in the Middle East. Originally, it’s an amphetamine-like substance, and it has been developed by Germany in the First and Second World War. But the formula being used now is very, very different. So, it only carries the trade name of Captagon.
We’ve come to the conclusion, after a year and a half of work in six countries — France, Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the United Kingdom — there are direct links between members of the Fourth Division and members of the Assad’s family to the trade in the region, which is, as you probably know more than I am, its [inaudible] — very important project in terms of [inaudible] capacity [inaudible] OCCRP.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Rasha Qandeel. She is a presenter with BBC Arabic, talking about this drug Captagon. If you can explain, Rasha, how it’s determining the geopolitics of the region and the acceptance of the Bashar al-Assad regime, inviting them back into the Arab community and possibly leading to the lifting of sanctions?
RASHA QANDEEL: Thank you very much for the excellent question. It’s actually a force of pressure not only in the region, but also on an international level. And as for the EU and the United States are concerned, it’s [inaudible] that clearly shows — and this is what I indicated, and my team, the brilliant director and all the rest of the team, indicate — that the sanctions on the Syrian and Lebanese people is not actually [inaudible] impact that was targeted by the United States, and recently by the United Kingdom.
It is a force in the region, in the Middle East. And as you know, there is a new renormalization with Bashar al-Assad in Arab League recently. And from insider information from the Arab League, I’ve heard many times throughout filming this investigation that it was actually the main card on the table. And I’ve been told by prominent sources that Bashar al-Assad was asked directly to control the Captagon in the region in return of Syria coming back to the Arab League.
So, definitely, in the coming few months, this is going to be a main factor in a lot of changes in the Middle East, probably in the dynamics, as well, between Russia and the United States, given the heat happening in Ukraine. And also, the trade itself is very, very powerful. The networks are universal now. And the alternative routes that are developed by smugglers every single day are reaching out fast and furious to Europe. And nobody knows yet if it’s reaching the United States or not, but nothing is impossible in such trade [inaudible] — these pills are being produced every year and consumed by the Gulf.
You’ve pointed to a very important thing, which is why Saudi Arabia is the biggest consumer in this. I’ve also heard, even though that we haven’t really had much interaction in Saudi Arabia — they were not very involved in the film, but I’ve heard from prominent sources in the Gulf that they consider this to be a war by Bashar al-Assad on them as a return back to the war on Syria since 2012. So, it’s definitely a geopolitical issue that needs to be looked into.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rasha, just before we end, if you could tell us who are the principal consumers? Who are the people who are addicted to Captagon in Syria, but also in Saudi Arabia and other places?
RASHA QANDEEL: I’ve heard horrific stories over a year and a half about young people, minors under 15, who consume this heavily in all the countries that I’ve visited — in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Syria and at the Gulf. And I’ve heard other stories from prominent officials in the Middle East that some of them are being abused to be used as smugglers. So, they are forced to become addicts, and then they are used on the borders to become smugglers, because they cost almost nothing in return to the profit that goes back to those who are making use of this trade. So, I’m really sorry to say that it’s mostly young people. Some of them are targeted on purpose. But also, there are like — we’ve interviewed in the film a user, and he’s under 22 years of old, and he’s been an addict for six years. The atrocities he’s been subjected to and told us are untold. It’s really sad to see a new generation relying on such substance and just not being able to get out of [inaudible] —
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, because we’re having trouble with the Skype connection. Rasha Qandeel, I want to thank you so much for being with us, senior fellow, Center for International Policy, presenter for BBC Arabic. You can see the new documentary, Captagon: Inside Syria’s drug trafficking empire, on YouTube. And Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president and CEO of MedGlobal. Back in 30 seconds with Congressmember Ro Khanna. Stay with us.