Drug Crazed Soldiers Complicate Syrian War, As Drug Sales Bring Cash to Combatants
The private jet at the Beirut airport wasn't just carrying a Saudi prince one night in October—it was loaded with two tons of Captagon, the Middle Eastern amphetamine that not only fuels the nightlife in Saudi Arabia, it's also a favorite of combatants in Syria's brutal civil war.
The prince's bust by Lebanese customs officials opened a media window on a Mideast amphetamine habit that is, by all accounts, huge. Manufactured in clandestine labs in Lebanon, and increasingly, in war-torn Syria, the drug is flooding the region, with the UNODC World Drug Report estimating that half a billion Captagon pills flood into Saudi Arabia alone each year.
Captagon has been around for a long time, but it's getting renewed attention for its role in the Syrian conflict. Manufactured since the 1960s, the stuff was banned regionally in the 1980s because of its addictive and anti-social properties. Now, Captagon is little more than a generic name for mixtures of amphetamine and caffeine or amphetamine and ephedrine, but it's still the kind of stimulant drug beloved by fighters who desire the energy, alertness and sense of well-being it brings.
It's "the drug fueling the conflict in Syria," the BBC reported, while the Washington Post called it, with just a touch of hyperbole, "the tiny pill fueling Syria's war and turning fighters into superhuman soldiers."
The Post notwithstanding, Captagon will not turn fighters into the Hulk, but as a stimulant, it can reduce hunger, sharpen focus and allow fighters to keep going for days on end. The problem is, doing speed for days on end tends to make people jumpy and paranoid—not the kind of person you necessarily want holding heavy weapons.
Still, numerous media reports have detailed Captagon use by fighters all on sides in Syria, from government troops to ISIS jihadis.
"So the brigade leader came and told us, 'This pill gives you energy. Try it,'" one ex-fighter told the BBC. "So we took it the first time. You feel physically fit. And if there were 10 people in front of you, you could catch them and kill them. You're awake all the time. You don't have any problems. You don't even think about sleeping. You don't think to leave the checkpoint. It gives you great courage and power. If the leader told you to go break into a military barracks, I will break in with a brave heart and without any feeling of fear at all — you're not even tired."
But Captagon's role in the region's wars is not limited to keeping fighters jacked up. It's also a money maker for the combatants, and it's big business. Lebanese authorities seized more than $200 million worth in one month, the country's top drug enforcement official told Time. Much of it is coming out of Syria, the official said.
Given the chaos in Syria, it's difficult to say who precisely is making and selling the drug, or supplying its precursors, but the belief is that both pro- and anti-Assad forces are involved, and that means profits from the trade are helping to sustain the conflict. Not only does Captagon allow fighters to fight harder and longer (and crazier), Captagon profits help allow the war to continue.
Ironically, as U.S. pilots unleash waves of bombs on ISIS targets in Syria, it could well be a case of amphetamine users bombing amphetamine users. The U.S. military is no stranger to speed—grunts used it in World War II and Green Berets used it in Vietnam—and the Air Force in particularly is known to hand out amphetamines, known as "go pills," to pilots to keep them alert and awake on long bombing runs.