Amphetamines, Anarchy, and Assad

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

As Syria’s bloody civil war boils on, the nation has become fertile ground for the growth of criminal activity.  As we described in the August AOC brief, Syria has become a regional hub for weapons smuggling, the illicit trade in antiquities, and now drug trafficking.  Recent reports have begun to emerge from Syria that amphetamine laboratories are being discovered in cities such as Homs, while drug traffickers in Lebanon have highlighted the ease with which they are able to smuggle drugs through the country. The chaos, poverty, and greed of war-torn Syria heightens the likelihood that such activities will grow in scope, financially benefitting criminals and combatants while drowning the region in narcotics and exacerbating the fragility of both Syria and its neighbours.

While several types of drugs are smuggled through Syria, the one currently raising concern is captagon. Captagon was the brand name of an amphetamine type stimulant, sold commercially until it was banned in 1986. Apart from the name, the current incarnation of the drug shares few chemical similarities with the original. Modern, illicitly produced captagon is usually composed of amphetamines cut with a mix of adulterants. The drug’s popularity has grown rapidly in the last decade, primarily in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries where it is taken as an energy booster and aphrodisiac. The value of the captagon market is massive, and increasing. Individual doses sell for $20 in Saudi Arabia; with some estimates pegging the number of captagon tablets successfully smuggled into that country at over 500 million.

While captagon has been popular in the Middle East since the 1980s, high levels of demand for the drug didn’t take off until the early 2000s.  Initially, the market was supplied either by laboratories in southeastern Europe – primarily in Bulgaria, though laboratories were also uncovered in Slovenia and Serbia. The drug was then smuggled through Turkey, Syria, and Jordan before being sold in Saudi Arabia. By 2006 captagon laboratories began to appear in Turkey, including two uncovered in Gaziantep on the Turkish/Syrian border. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Syria began producing captagon that same year, while in 2007 Lebanon seized both precursor chemicals and the laboratory equipment for producing the drug.  Also by this time 75% of the global illicit production of captagon’s chemical precursor was shipped to “two countries in the near and Middle East.”

Wherever it was being produced, by 2006 captagon had started to flood Saudi Arabia. In that year, Saudi Arabia seized 12 tons of the drug; roughly equivalent, as the UN Office of Drugs and Crime dryly noted in the WDR 2009, to “to the sum of all UK seizures – the biggest amphetamine market in Europe – from 2000 to 2006.” In Syria, the level of captagon seizures doubled between 2007 and 2009, to 22 million tablets. Most trafficking routes still moved overland through Syria and into Jordan, though there are some indications that a route through Iraq was active by 2010.

The Syrian civil war has entrenched the nation’s role as an entrepot for the Middle East’s amphetamine market. Labs have been uncovered in Syrian cities such as Homs, as well as in northern areas held by insurgent groups. As well, an increasing number of Syrians have been arrested throughout the Middle East for captagon smuggling. While it is unclear which groups are involved in the production and smuggling of the drug, it is likely that both the Syrian regime and at least some of the rebel organizations are financially benefitting. The patchwork nature of territorial control along traditional smuggling routes likely force traffickers to pay tolls or bribes to both sides. One apparent benefit for the traffickers is that the dire economic straights of Syria’s law enforcement and military personnel have apparently made bribery, and thus smuggling, far easier.

It is possible that Syria could evolve into a thoroughfare for other types of narcotics as well. Cocaine trafficking, and a small domestic cocaine market, developed in Syria during the 2000s, with 77 KG of the drug seized in 2007.  Heroin seizures also grew dramatically during the 2000s, averaging 80 KG/year between 2007 and 2011.  For drug traffickers, Syria is a geographically well-positioned staging ground not only for the Middle East’s amphetamine market, but also for Europe’s far more lucrative cocaine and heroin market. The smuggling networks that bring weapons in and humans and antiquities out of the country could well be used for narcotics trafficking. The focus by both the insurgents and the government on perpetuating the stalemated civil war lessens the likelihood that any sort of meaningful action will be taken to halt the trade in drugs.

Arms Trafficking in Syria: A Case of the Biter Getting Bitten

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

The grinding maelstrom that is Syria’s civil war continues to churn. While the grievances behind the conflict are complex and variable, there is one enabling factor that has been vital – access to weaponry. Despite pleas from insurgent groups for more arms, the geographic reach of the conflict and its intensity are indicative of a situation awash in guns. This is a striking shift for a country that historically has had far fewer weapons in civilian hands than its neighbors. Where then does the plethora of weapons in insurgent hands come from, and how have they arrived there?

The most important early source of weaponry for the insurgents were government stockpiles. Government weapons and ammunition have fallen into rebel hands in three ways: purchased from corrupt government officials, via direct assault, in some cases immediately using captured weapons to sustain rolling offensives or brought by defecting soldiers. Since the beginning of the conflict Syria’s military has struggled to staunch a steady stream defectors from joining the insurgents. The presence of these former soldiers bring has both increased the lethality of the insurgency, and helped to shape the types of weapons in demand.

Since the beginning of the conflict the Syrian insurgency has also been supplied weapons smuggled in from neighboring countries. Initially, weapons trafficking groups operated on a small-scale, almost ad-hoc basis and were basically apolitical. Individuals and local smuggling networks procured weapons in Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, from commercial and civilian sources. Highlighting the irony of weapons being smuggled back into Syria which, in in previous years its government had smuggled to insurgent groups in neighboring states, a western diplomat noted, “it’s a case of the biter getting bitten.”

The start of the conflict caused a spike in regional weapons prices, with prices for Ak-47s, sniper rifles and handguns in Iraq increasing nearly four-fold. While expensive, regional sources were able to provide a host of weapons, including AK-47s, M-16s, shotguns, sniper rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles, and Katyusha rockets. Once procured, the weapons were moved across the often unguarded border between Syria and its neighbors by vehicle, donkey, or by foot, before being offered for sale inside the country. As the conflict ground on, and the potential for profits increased, ad-hoc smuggling efforts were taken over by established arms trafficking and professional criminal groups.

A more centrally organized effort to source weapons began in 2012. Representatives of the Free Syrian Army made contact with weapons dealers in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region, hoping to procure weapons that would then be smuggled across the Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian rebels also reached out to militia groups in Libya for assistance. The Libyan groups have proven to be a particularly important source of weapons for the Syrian insurgents. Brokers in Libya procure weapons that have either been donated by sympathetic groups, or purchased from the well-stocked black market. Once sufficient quantities have been stockpiles the weapons are shipped by sea or air to Syria’s neighbors. After the Lebanese government seized 60,000 rounds of ammunition being shipped through the northern port of Tripoli, the Libyan groups have mainly transported their weaponry via Turkey, and in a small number of cases Jordan. While the exact amount of weaponry smuggled via this channel is unclear, some smugglers have claimed that over 28 metric tons have been delivered via air alone.

Efforts by Libyan brokers to supply the rebels have coincided with, and perhaps been tied to, efforts by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to arm the rebels. Active support for the insurgency emerged in early 2012, spearheaded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. At present, the weapons are primarily sourced from Eastern EuropeCroatiaLibya, and Sudan, with the Qataris and the Saudis purchasing and transporting the weapons to Turkey and Jordan. A rough division labor has emerged, with Qatar primarily supplying groups in the north of the country, while Saudi Arabia provisions those groups in the south. The official pipeline both a magnitude of order larger than unofficial efforts – delivering an estimated 3,500 tons of weaponry – it is also providing increasingly sophisticated weaponry. In at least two recent cases, Qatar is believed to have provided rebels with portable anti-aircraft systems. While the United States is not believed to have provided large amounts of weaponry, it has played a role in developing the arms pipeline and in vetting the Syrian groups that receive the weapons.

The weapons channels supplying Syria’s insurgents comprise a complex, overlapping web of state, non-state and criminal actors.  As the war grinds on these smuggling webs will become increasingly entrenched, and highly vulnerable to exploitation by organized crime groups. One needs look no further than the Balkans – where officially sanctioned smuggling routes were appropriated by crime groups as soon as the conflicts ended – for a vision of the organized crime challenge the Middle East may face in the coming decade.