Captagon: Assad’s Ticket to Normalization in the Arab World?

On May 19, 2023, Bashar al-Assad made headlines by attending the Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for the first time since the start of the Syria Civil War in 2011. Posing for pictures, Assad appeared to be in good spirits as he socialized with other dignitaries, marking a significant shift in Middle East relations at large. While this recent surge in Syria normalization attempts has angered and confused many, with Syrian citizens themselves taking to the streets in protest, the path toward reconciliation with Syria reflected a regional desire for stability, security, and profit. With Assad attending the latest Arab League Summit in Manama, Bahrain, the Saudi-led risky leap to normalize Syria in the Arab world demonstrates regional desires as well as fears.

Considering some countries’, such as the United States, staunch refusal to support or legitimize the regime, some may wonder why exactly are some countries in the Middle East even considering normalization with it. The Assad regime’s history of atrocities against its own citizens has made many question the incentives to recognize and do business with the Syrian government. The Arab League had cut ties with Syria back in 2011 because Assad had violated a deal with the League that would protect protesters from violence during the Arab Spring. The ensuing Syrian Civil War only worsened the general consensus on Assad’s targeted violence and froze international relations with the country for over a decade.

While there are many factors for this recent process of normalization with Syria, such as refugee repatriation, improved humanitarian aid access, containment of violence and terrorism, opportunities for reconstruction, and combating Iranian regional influence, one variable stands out among the many: trafficking Captagon. This illegal drug trade has earned the Assad regime billions in revenue while simultaneously flooding nearby countries. The Assad regime has leveraged its role in the pervasive Captagon trade as a bargaining chip for normalization with the Arab world and the world at large, confounding many as concerns are raised over regional stability and security.

The Syrian Regime and Captagon

Captagon, an amphetamine-like stimulant, has plagued the Middle East for over a decade. Originally developed as a treatment for ADHD, narcolepsy, and other conditions, it was first introduced to the region via Eastern European smuggling routes in the early 2000s. To help address its economic crisis precipitated by war and sanctions, the Assad regime resorted to the production of the illegal, addictive substance to replenish its coffers with foreign currency. The trade in the drug has generated billions of dollars in revenue for the regime, with sales in 2021 alone totaling around $5.7 billion. An estimated 80 percent of the world’s Captagon supply is produced in Syria, the worth of which some experts claim is “approximately 3 times the combined trade of the Mexican cartels.”

80 percent of the world’s Captagon supply is produced in Syria.

As of 2023, the Assad regime controls around 70 percent of the country’s geography, including the capital of Damascus, transportation centers like the Port of Latakia, and borders with Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel. This provides regime-linked Captagon makers and smugglers with an expansive area to operate while being protected by the regime’s own security sector. Furthermore, government officials, like President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad, the commander of the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, and private sector figures are critical in the drug trade. More specifically, individuals involved in the shipping, airline, oil, agricultural, or communications industries help to more easily facilitate Captagon smuggling across the Syrian border. The pills are often smuggled in the millions, sometimes being hidden in large shipments of pomegranates, pottery, machinery, oranges, dairy and egg packages, tea, and cardboard, among other things. Although denied, many experts have noted that Iran-backed groups, such as Hezbollah, have been instrumental in the expansion and success of this trade. Since 2022, regional efforts to combat the Captagon drug trade have increased, resulting in the deaths of smugglers, border shootouts, arrests, and seizures. As a result, this drug trade has become a security priority for both Syria border countries as well as Gulf Arab countries.

The Assad regime has utilized Captagon not only to fill its coffers, but also as a “bargaining chip” for potential Arab League readmittance for Syria. The regime has offered to slow down Captagon production and smuggling in return for normalization, though despite its membership being reactivated in May 2023, production of the drug has not decreased. Assad also has repeatedly denied involvement in the drug trade, thus providing himself safeguards from further international sanctions and isolation.

Captagon and Normalizing with Syria


Jordan is arguably the country most affected by the Captagon trade. With a 230-mile shared border with Syria, the country serves as a popular smuggling route for pills to get into Gulf states. To help combat this, the United States pledged in 2023 to provide more military aid for improved border security, adding onto the already hefty $1 billion in aid provided to the strategically vital country since 2011.

Unlike other countries, Jordan has been forced to activate its military to not only seize pill shipments, but to also engage in armed combat with smugglers. In the first two months of 2022 only, the Jordanian Army killed 30 smugglers and seized around 16 million Captagon pills coming in from Syria. Between January and August 2023, the Jordanian military stopped close to 200 drug smuggling attempts across the border, around 88 of which involved drone use by the smugglers. In May of 2023, a Jordanian airstrike on drug production facilities destroyed a production center linked to Hezbollah and killed a prominent Syrian drug smuggler named Marai al-Ramthan and his family. In January 2024, the Jordanian Army launched yet another strike on allegedly Iran-backed Captagon facilities, such as warehouses and smuggler hideouts, as well as the drug smugglers themselves.

Border security is evidently a paramount concern for Jordan, which is one of the main reasons why it has pursued normalization with Syria since 2017. However, the failure of diplomatic outreaches helped subdue the normalization process. Recent steps by Arab League members have moved normalization forward, providing Jordan with the support and political will needed to reach agreements with Syria. In a July 2023 meeting in Damascus between Assad and Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi, border security regarding drug trafficking was discussed at length, in addition to the return of refugees to Syria and an agreement on further collaboration on energy, transport, agriculture, and water sectors. In May 2024, Safadi met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to further emphasize the need for improved border security as well as a “political solution” for Syria in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 which seeks to democratize the country.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has many reasons for seeking to normalize with Assad, such as appeasing Iran, to diversify its partnerships, as well as to pursue opportunities for reconstruction in Syria, especially after the 2023 earthquakes that killed over 6,000 people in the northwest region of the country and caused some $5 billion in damage. However, what is arguably top on Riyadh’s list is Captagon. In August 2022, around 46 million pills were seized in a large shipment of flour. In June of the following year, about 4.5 million Captagon pills were confiscated while hidden in shipments of oranges. Gulf states are the primary destination for the pills, as well as other illegal drugs, leading Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf to take drastic measures to crack down on smugglers.

Saudi Arabia has appeared quite active in pursuing normalization with Syria, in line with a recent trend of regional rapprochement. The country has served as the de-facto leader in the normalization process, with many other Middle East countries following in its footsteps. Saudi Arabia has facilitated numerous meetings between officials in recent years as well as hosted the first Arab League summit that Assad attended in 2023. In April 2023, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud met with Assad in Damascus for the first time since 2011. The officials discussed finding a “political solution” to the Syrian conflict that “would preserve the country’s Arab identity, and return it to its Arab surroundings.” The next month, Assad attended the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, his arrival being received well with smiles from all, including the deputy governor of Mecca Prince Badr Bin Sultan. In March 2024, the Saudi Foreign Minister met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Riyadh to further such discussions on political solutions.

The United Arab Emirates

Similar to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates is very concerned about Captagon. However, unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE began the normalization process first, starting in 2018 when the country reopened its embassy in Damascus. The UAE is interested in the many investment and development opportunities associated with Syrian reconstruction once the normalization process advances. The UAE also seeks to switch tactics in this period of rapprochement by diversifying partnerships, especially those that could help diminish Iran’s regional influence.

Gulf states are the primary destination for the pills, as well as other illegal drugs

The UAE is quite unique in its wholehearted approach to both normalization with Syria and support of Assad, as well as its leading role in the Assad rapprochement process. Nonetheless, Captagon is still an issue and will likely dominate many of the conversations between the two countries. In the beginning of 2023, a Captagon smuggler was arrested in the Abu Dhabi airport while attempting to bring in around 4.5 million pills hidden in green bean packages. In September of that year, UAE authorities seized around $1 billion worth of Captagon pills hidden in shipments of wall panels and doors. A few years prior, in 2019, authorities also thwarted a smuggling attempt of 5.7 million pills hidden in containers of food products.

Bilateral relations between the two countries have improved, as seen by meetings between the UAE foreign minister and Assad in 2021 and 2023, as well as between the two presidents themselves since 2021. In mid-2023, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, went so far as to invite Assad himself to COP28 later that year in November, further showing the rapidly-thawing relations between the two.


Qatar has been outspoken in its objection to normalization with Assad, likely due to its desire to preserve its relationship with the United States as well as a general dissatisfaction with Assad for his regime’s many human rights violations. This has served to isolate Qatar, however, among fellow regional actors that seek to accept Assad and be done with the Syrian conflict. In September 2020, nearly 35,000 Captagon pills were seized by the Air Freight Division of Qatari Customs. In the same month two years later, just under 7,500 pills were discovered in an airline passenger’s bags and clothing. In May of 2023, more than 9,000 pills were found smuggled inside children’s mattresses.


Egypt was not as critical as other Arab countries of the Syrian regime’s conduct in the civil war, but has generally been cautious about taking “unilateral steps” toward normalization with Assad. Thus Egypt has worked alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE in taking steps toward Syrian rapprochement. In the aftermath of the February 2023 earthquake in Syria, the Egyptian government sent humanitarian aid to the affected country as well as organized a meeting between Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Assad, all within the same month. In March 2023, Shoukry again met with Syrian officials to discuss strengthening relations between the two countries and improving lines of communication.

As for Captagon, Egyptian authorities confiscated 3.2 million pills in November 2020 that were smuggled in canned corn containers and another 11 million pills in water filter packages. Egypt is not a good market for the drug, so the shipments were most likely destined for other countries. In January of 2021, 8 million pills we seized at Port Said as they were transported from Beirut to Libya.

Oman and Kuwait

While both countries have the same problem with smuggled Captagon, they have different approaches to normalization with Syria. Oman has worked with Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia to facilitate rapprochement but Kuwait, like Qatar, has shown hesitation. In fact, Oman never severed ties with Syria, preferring to maintain a more neutral stance and Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said hosted Assad in February 2023. On the other hand, and while not being enthusiastic about relations with the Syrian regime, Kuwait has donated tens of millions of dollars to Syria in earthquake relief and throughout the years.

Neither Oman nor Kuwait appear willing to stand in the way of the normalization of Syria, especially since they do not have much to gain from it. Moreover, the high demand for Captagon in each respective country has only served as a catalyst for normalization with Assad. In Kuwait, 1.2 million Captagon pills were seized in January 2023. In Oman, around 6 million pills were discovered, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, in a shipment of moss-colored bricks in a June 2023 operation.

Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon

Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon all share borders with Syria and have seen an influx of Captagon, with the first two identified as major routes of the drug to Europe. In May 2021, over 6.2 million smuggled Captagon pills, worth about $37 million, were discovered by Iskenderun Port authorities while they were in transit to the UAE. As for Iraq, the country never cut ties with Syria and remained close despite the 2011 Civil War in Syria. In fact, in July 2023, Assad hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani in Damascus for the first time since 2011. While the two countries have issues to discuss, such as the Captagon trade, Iraqi-Syrian relations appear to be continuously warming. However, drug smuggling is still rampant in the country. In June 2023, 250,000 pills were found in a school building in the middle of renovations. The very next month, authorities discovered the first known Captagon production site in the country, along with a total of 2 million pills. In January 2024, Iraqi authorities arrested three Captagon dealers and confiscated 100,000 pills. The next month, authorities seized 176 pounds of the drug.

Lebanon is yet another country that did not completely sever ties with Syria, though Lebanese citizens have had mixed reactions to Assad’s policies and actions. The Lebanese government has been distant from Assad for the most part, due largely to the 2012 Baabda Declaration calling for detachment from the Syrian conflict and control of the Lebanon-Syria border. Despite this,

Hezbollah has openly supported the Assad regime, even going so far as to militarily assist the regime and its army. While not all government officials agree, the majority see normalization with Syria as a positive step. The surge of Captagon smuggling is undoubtedly part of this calculus. In April 2023, Lebanese authorities seized 10 million pills hidden in rubber carbon packages on the way to Senegal and Saudi Arabia. In June of the same year, Beirut Port authorities discovered 450,000 pills concealed in electric engines that were on the way to an undisclosed Gulf state as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The United States

While some actors in the Middle East have been swayed by Assad’s tactics, the United States has not deviated from its stance on the need to isolate Syria and exert as much pressure on it as possible in order to see visible changes aligning with international norms and laws. The United States has also made steps in stopping Captagon production and supporting its regional allies in doing so. The Captagon Act, signed into law in December 2022 by President Joe Biden as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, identifies the drug trade as a “transnational security threat” and seeks to develop strategies to “deny, degrade, and dismantle Assad-linked narcotics production and trafficking networks.”

In line with the United States’ extensive use of financial sanctions on Syria, it has also utilized the Caesar Syria Civil Protection Act of 2019 in combating the Captagon drug trade. This bill sanctions foreign individuals who “provide technological, financial, and material support to the Assad regime.” The Department of State has worked jointly with the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in implementing the Caesar Act and has also offered to conduct similar work with other countries concerned with the Captagon trade within their own borders. The United States’ Syria policy does not allow for any levels of normalization with the Assad regime, which, along with its allies the United Kingdom and European Union states, will be a constant thorn in regional rapprochement attempts.


While Western nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union, are steadfast in opposing Syrian normalization, the process is still steadily advancing with a long list of many wealthy and influential regional supporters. With numerous reasons for rapprochement, most predominantly the Captagon trade, many Middle East countries find that the potential positives far outweigh the costs, even if it means testing their relationship with the United States and other Western powers.

However, Middle East countries should also consider the possibility that normalization will not bring about an end to or a decrease in Captagon production, but may instead exacerbate the problem as Assad would be able to acquire more connections in the black market drug trade, easier access to varied smuggling destinations, increased funds, as well as deniability to keep up appearances. Crippled by over a decade’s worth of international sanctions and condemnations, Assad has appeared very willing to use every move in his playbook to stay in power, even if that means engaging in illicit trafficking in cooperation with Iran-backed militias.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.