Amphetamines Fuel Both Sides of the Syrian War

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Members of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces keep watch as tractors destroy a field of cannabis in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa valley on July 23, 2012. As war buffets the region, wealthy Saudis, Syrian rebels and young Lebanese have a growing appetite for amphetamines. Lucie Parseghian/EPA

Lebanon has long been a playground for wealthy citizens of austere Arab countries, but even the worldly Lebanese were taken aback on October 26 when security officials arrested a 29-year-old Saudi prince, Abdel Mohsen bin Walid bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud, on suspicion of trying to take 2 tons of amphetamines with him on a private jet bound for the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Lebanese police also arrested four other Saudi men at Beirut International Airport in what the state news agency described as the biggest bust in the airport’s history.

The prince’s arrest has focused attention on Lebanon's notorious drug-trafficking networks and their ability to cross the Middle East's political and sectarian divides. Combatants in Syria’s civil war, civilians in the battle-weary region and the wealthy citizens of the Gulf countries all have a growing appetite for hard drugs. That demand has, in turn, generated fresh revenues for drug barons and militias, who, as they did in previous wars in Colombia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, have become allies of convenience in many cases.

Analysts say that the war next door has tied up many of Lebanon’s security officials who might otherwise be fighting drug traffickers; many are busy monitoring the volatile border areas and the pockets of jihadis straddling it who are sympathetic to extremist Sunni groups involved in the Syrian war. The police’s and army’s lack of focus on the drug-producing regions has inadvertently helped fuel the rise of the amphetamine trade. Lebanese hashish producers say that the limited law enforcement presence in the country’s Bekaa Valley in particular over the past two years has contributed to a barely interrupted supply of marijuana, driving street prices down and cutting into profit margins. That decline in profits, and the growing appeal of amphetamines in the Middle East, has created an incentive for some hashish dealers here to produce more amphetamines. In recent years, makeshift labs have sprung up in Lebanese villages and just over the Syrian border. These labs churn out a knock-off version of Captagon, a brand name for the widely banned synthetic amphetamine phenethylline. That’s what the police say they found on the Saudi prince’s plane.

Drug dealers in the Bekaa Valley say they are used to dealing with customers from the Gulf states. “Saudis and other Gulfies are the biggest buyers of Captagon, absolutely,” says Abu Hussein, a Lebanese drug trafficker from a village several miles from the Syrian border. “They believe it gives them special powers for sex," he adds, smiling mischievously.

The drug is not only popular for those rumored benefits; fighters from all sides of the Syrian war use the pill’s speedy effects to stay alert for long stretches on the battlefield. Competing propaganda outlets frequently claim Captagon pills have been discovered on dead and captured enemy fighters. For Hezbollah and Syrian government forces, alleging that their enemies are taking drugs plays into claims that they are fighting against nonbeliever "terrorists."

The war in Syria has created supply as well as demand. Supplies of Captagon in the region rose after Syrian rebels lost the city of Qusayr to Hezbollah fighters backed by the Syrian army in 2013. Qusayr has been transformed into a Captagon production and distribution hub and a hideout for notorious Lebanese Shiite traffickers, some of whom are subject to arrest warrants on charges of murder, kidnapping and currency counterfeiting, says Abu Hussein. The city, which was once home to roughly 60,000 mostly Sunni residents, lies on a strategic route linking Damascus to the Syrian regime's Mediterranean coastal stronghold. Today, according to Abu Hussein and people who have traveled recently to Qusayr, the city is mostly a transit point and garrison for Hezbollah and allied Syrian militiamen.

At times, the lines between drug baron and warlord become blurred. Lebanon's most flamboyant drug lord, Noah Zaiter, was filmed in September with Hezbollah fighters besieging the rebel-held Syrian mountain town of Zabadani. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, Zaiter pledged to destroy the Sunni militant group the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in the name of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Deep family ties on both sides of the border—and in both drug-smuggling organizations and militias—ensure that the flow of drugs, weapons and militiamen is largely uninterrupted. Most of the drugs go through the Bekaa Valley, a narrow, fertile basin that runs parallel to Lebanon's eastern border with Syria and is arguably the Middle East's primary hub for counterfeit amphetamine pills. Bracketed by two mountain ranges, the picturesque plain has long been known for the production and trafficking of narcotics—mostly locally grown hashish and cocaine smuggled from Latin America and West Africa.

"The Bekaa is basically a tribal land, ruled by clans that are heavily armed and often involved in the drug trade," says Timur Goksel, a former U.N. peacekeeping official in Lebanon, now an editor for the news site Al-Monitor. "The police are practically nonexistent there," he adds. "The whole structure of the Lebanese state allows this to happen."

The Lebanese army and police promised a crackdown on criminal activity in the Bekaa Valley in February, but after nine months Lebanese politicians have deemed it a flop. One Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament last month called the plan “a total failure,” and Lebanon's Interior Minister Mohammad Machnouk, who belongs to a political bloc opposed to Hezbollah, agreed, telling reporters in October the crackdown was nothing more than “empty promises.” A police spokesman said the country's security forces are preparing a new plan.

The Bekaa is the backyard, training camp and birthplace of Hezbollah, which was formed over three decades ago by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps. The only building in a vast field of chest-high hashish plants near the Bekaa village of Taraya is a small green and white mosque. The square structure, which stands alone at a small crossroads, flies the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah and black banners bearing religious rallying cries.

Hezbollah and the prominent Shiite drug trading clans here are mostly bound by mutual self-interest. Both offer some protection for the other: The clans have recently helped to secure Hezbollah supply lines to its forces fighting in Syria, while the group allegedly provides political cover to top clan members during occasional law enforcement crackdowns near their turf.

Several of the area's most prominent traffickers downplayed the role that the Captagon trade plays in fueling the war in Syria. When asked, most cited the drug's rock-bottom wholesale price, the high cost of black-market military hardware and a massive influx of foreign money as reasons for why the profits from even large sales of the low-cost narcotic would not greatly influence the war’s course.

Abu Hussein and his family have made their fortune by growing and selling hashish in this part of the country for decades, as well as moving shipments of cocaine. Captagon is so cheap and easy to produce, he says, that the Gulf's insatiable appetite for the drug made getting in on the action several years ago an obvious business decision. Chinese-made pill presses sell for anywhere from $700 to $2,000 here, and the chemicals used in production are similarly inexpensive and easy to acquire, mostly by way of smuggling routes from Turkey.

Captagon is one of the cheapest narcotics available in the Middle East. The small, eastern town of Baalbek, famed for its Roman ruins and decades of virtual lawlessness, has numerous small labs. There, one pill goes for $1 to $2 on the street. In Beirut, the average going rate is $10 apiece. Some Lebanese cocaine dealers admit that they sometimes cut their product with Captagon because it's so inexpensive and readily accessible. The United Nations's Office on Drugs and Crime reports that Saudi Arabia's drug of choice is amphetamines—usually some form of Captagon. According to UNODC figures, nearly 40 percent of the world's amphetamine seizures were made in the Middle East in 2009. Over half of those occurred in Saudi Arabia, where drug charges are often punishable by death.

"It's a garbage drug, but it's inexpensive," says Marwan, a 31-year-old IT specialist from the Bekaa who says he uses Captagon several times per week. "We can only afford cocaine for special occasions."

Despite the attention that the Saudi prince’s arrest has brought to drug smuggling in the region, Abu Hussein says he's not concerned about a crackdown on producers and dealers. "The army will issue threats, and the police will stay away, as always," he says. "Once a year they arrest a few of our cousins, and there are no charges. There is no Lebanese state."