Aperio features Con Coughlin in conversation on the Captagon trade

Hal Gatewood Nhg5gix93es Unsplash

On 6th September, Aperio Intelligence held an event titled “Assad’s return to the Arab fold and the Captagon trade – in conversation with Con Coughlin”, hosted by Larissa Normanton, Head of Aperio’s Middle East and North Africa Practice. We were delighted to welcome Con, The Daily Telegraph‘s Defence and Security Editor and a distinguished author and journalist, for an insightful talk followed by a fascinating discussion and Q&A session. 

Con has been following conflicts in the Middle East since an assignment to cover the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s. His latest book “Assad: The Triumph of Tyranny” was published earlier this year and Con began by describing the Assad family, its internal tensions and rivalries and the story of President Bashar Al-Assad’s (President Assad) rise to power. The audience learned of his fast-tracked training course to become a dictator, following the untimely death of his brother Bassel in 1994, his deep-seated insecurities and his sensitivity about comparisons to his deceased brother and father, factors which go some way to explaining the nature of his harsh rule. 

Con also discussed the topical subject of the Syrian Captagon trade, notwithstanding his description of the broader drugs trade in Syria as “as old as the hills”. Having faced isolation and sanctions since 2011, the Assad regime has relied on the manufacture and trade of Captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine, to keep funds flowing. Whilst there is little agreement on exact figures, even conservative estimates put this trade’s annual value to Syria in the region of USD 5 billion. The drug is widely consumed by the young people in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Israel and has had a destabilising effect across the entire region.  President Assad’s promises to reign it in are considered by many commentators to be a key reason for his rehabilitation and Syria’s readmission to the Arab League, with Con pointing out the irony of President Assad’s vow to assist with the fight against an issue which he himself is directly involved in initiating and propagating. Given the relatively low-profile of this sanctions-evading shadow industry, Con provided the audience with a fascinating insight into its impact on the region and the Assad family’s direct involvement in the drug’s production and distribution. The audience learned that President Assad is rumoured to have a private office within the presidential palace devoted entirely to Captagon, and that despite the zero-tolerance official policies towards drug use in the region, up to 40% of Jordanians in prison are facing drugs-related charges.  

Con also discussed the implications of recent unrest in Syria on the wider regional and international stage, and the lessons which have been learned from years of Russian intervention in Syria. Con explained how Russia’s military intervention during the Syrian Civil War revealed evidence of ill-discipline and corruption among the senior ranks of the Russian military, and the brutality of Russian tactics, such as indiscriminate aerial bombings, which more recently have been replicated in Ukraine. President r Assad was presented as a somewhat weak leader, with Russia exploiting Syria’s vulnerability as a means to carve out opportunities for wealth creation within the country, under the guise of military assistance . Furthermore, the audience learned of the origins of the Wagner Group’s overseas deployment as an alternative or proxy military presence in Syria, used to avoid having Russian Ministry of Defence ‘boots on the ground’. This strategy has been seen repeatedly in later Wagner Group operations in countries in Africa including Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan. 

More broadly, the Q&A session examined the implications of President Assad’s rehabilitation on Syria’s internal stability and the potential for nations beyond those of the Arab League to follow suit and ‘turn the page’ with regards to the Assad regime’s history of atrocities. The discussion also touched on the Biden administration’s relationships with regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, its ambivalence towards the Kingdom, and the effect this has had on Middle Eastern regional partnerships, such as the recent Saudi Iranian rapprochement brokered by China and Iran’s continued presence in Syria, where two thirds of Syrian military bases are estimated to be occupied by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. 

Ultimately, only time will tell whether President Assad will keep his promises to curb the Captagon trade, and whether normalising his regime will help to stabilise Syria in the longer-term. Wednesday’s insightful discussion demonstrated that the Captagon trade is a significant if underreported factor affecting wider relationships in the Middle East and one of the drivers of regional diplomacy. We will be following future developments and their implications closely, and they will be covered in the FCD. 

In the meantime, if you have any questions or if you would like to discuss these issues further, please contact Larissa Normanton, larissa.normanton@aperio-intelligence.com.