As Syria sinks ever deeper into civil war, evidence is starting to emerge that a brutal and bloody conflict that has left more than 100,000 people dead and displaced as many as 2 million is now also being fueled by both the export and consumption of rapidly increasing quantities of illegal drugs.
Separate investigations by Time magazine and Reuters news agency have found that the growing trade in Syrian-made Captagon — a stimulant widely consumed in the Middle East — generated revenues of millions of US dollars inside the country last year, some of which was almost certainly used to fund weapons, while combatants on both sides are reportedly turning to the stimulant to help them keep fighting.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says Syria has long been a transit point for drugs coming from Europe, Turkey and Lebanon and destined for the Gulf states.
However, the breakdown of law and order, collapse of Syria’s infrastructure and proliferation of armed groups have now turned it into a major producer, Reuters said.
Production in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley — a traditional center for the drug — fell 90 percent last year from 2011, with the decline largely attributed to production inside Syria.
Neither investigation found conclusive evidence that the warring sides were using profits from the drug directly to buy weapons, but both quoted experts and officials as saying this was highly likely.
Former US Department of the Treasury official Matthew Levitt said that the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah “has a long history of dabbling in the drug trade to help with funding.”
Colonel Ghassan Chamseddine, head of the drug enforcement unit in Lebanon, where more than 12 million Captagon tablets were seized last year, said that most of the illicit pills are hidden in trucks passing from Syria to Lebanese ports, from where they are shipped to the Gulf.
He told Time that he suspected proceeds from the drug trade were being used “at least partly” to fund rebels fighting Syrian President Basher al-Assad.
Captagon, the trademark name for the synthetic stimulant fenethylline, was first produced in the 1960s to treat hyperactivity, narcolepsy and depression, but was banned in most countries by the 1980s as too addictive. It remains hugely popular in the Middle East.
The drug is cheap and simple to produce, using ingredients that are easy and often legal to obtain, yet sells for up to US$20 a tablet.
Lebanese psychiatrist Ramzi Haddad said that Captagon had “the typical effects of a stimulant,” producing “a kind of euphoria. You’re talkative, you don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you’re energetic.”
Those effects explain why fighters from most of the warring parties in Syria are now said to be making extensive use of Captagon, often on night missions or during particularly grueling battles.
However, doctors say use of the drug is also becoming widespread among Syria’s increasingly desperate civilian population.