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Syrian Drug Sales Fuel Country's Civil War


Drug money has fueled insurgencies all over the world, from Afghanistan to Central and South America. And now, the war in Syria may be seeing the beginning of a similar trade. This time, it's not opium or cocaine, it's Captagon, a powerful amphetamine and highly sought after street drug in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In just one month, Lebanese authorities seized more than $200 million worth of Captagon. Other raids have yielded more than six million loose pills at a time.

Aryn Baker is the Middle East bureau chief for Time magazine. And she's been covering the role that Captagon is playing in the Syrian War. She joins us now. Welcome to the program, Aryn.

ARYN BAKER: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: To begin, what exactly is Captagon? We've heard that it, once upon a time, was used to treat ADHD. And we want to know where it's popular, what its street value is?

BAKER: Well, yes, that's what it was used for. It's a mild stimulant in the original form. But it was banned in 1986 nearly in every country in the world. And it has come back as a counterfeit Captagon, which is basically cheap amphetamines mixed with caffeine and a few other adulterants to make a very cheap and powerful street drug that's still sold in little white or brown caplets, about the same shape and color as the original Captagon.

More than half of all addicts that are undergoing treatment in Saudi right now are addicted to Captagon. It's a quite, quite addictive drug and it takes a toll on the nervous system. And it can retail for anywhere from $10 to $20 a pill.

CORNISH: Now, where have you seen it pop up in Syria? And is this production or smuggling? What are you seeing?

BAKER: It's not clear yet exactly what the situation is. I have been hearing one or two accounts of factories in cities like Homs, where they're produced and where they've been actually confiscated by the Syrian government. The family that was running the factory appears to be a Sunni family aligned with the rebels fighting the Assad government.

But, of course, it's not just the Sunni rebels that are dabbling in Captagon. It's also Hezbollah operatives and supporters here in Lebanon. And Hezbollah, of course, is fighting on the side of the Syrian government.

CORNISH: Aryn, I just want to make something clear here. Right now, it sounds like you're saying it's too early to tell what are all the different factions who could be involved here. I mean, is there any sense that the Syrian government is involved, or soldiers connected to the Syrian government is involved as well? Or is this all about kind of rebel groups and militants who are working in Syria now?

BAKER: There are some indications that the Syrian government is working on the sidelines in terms of taking bribes, turning a blind eye for the trafficking of the drugs across Syrian borders. The most common route for Captagon to get from Lebanon into Saudi, for example, is across Syria, across Jordan, and then into Saudi.

And I've spoken to a very major drug smuggler here in Lebanon, who tells me that he loves to traffic across Syria because it's so easy to buy-off Syrian officials and government soldiers because they're eager cash and they don't care about rule of law. So he prefers to goes that route rather than the sea route to Saudi.

CORNISH: As you've written, the drug trade is not new to the region, looking at Afghanistan, looking at Lebanon in the past. What's the concern here for the U.S. and other countries who are trying to engage in some sort of peace process in Syria?

BAKER: That you're going to start seeing more and more funding going to various rebel groups, led by warlords not necessarily unified or aligned with American interests or Saudi interests or Western interests; not necessarily aligned with the Syrian government for that matter, either. So what you can see is a devolution into warlord war down in Syria, where different factions are fighting not just for ideology but also for turf and trafficking and power and money.

CORNISH: Aryn Baker is the Middle East bureau chief for Time magazine. Aryn, thank you for speaking with us.

BAKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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