The war in Syria has become a tangled web of conflict dominated by competing military factions fueled by an overlapping mixture of ideologies and political agendas.
Just below it, experts suspect, they’re powered by something else: Captagon.
The tiny, highly addictive pill is produced in Syria and now widely available across the Middle East. Its illegal sale funnels hundreds of millions of dollars back into the war-torn country’s black-market economy each year, likely giving militias access to new arms, fighters, and the ability to keep the conflict boiling, according to the Guardian.
‘‘Syria is a tremendous problem in that it’s a collapsed security sector, because of its porous borders, because of the presence of so many criminal elements and organized networks,’’ the UN Office on Drugs and Crime regional representative, Masood Karimipour, told Voice of America.
‘‘There’s a great deal of trafficking being done of all sorts of illicit goods — guns, drugs, money, people. But what is being manufactured there and who is doing the manufacturing, that’s not something we have visibility into from a distance.’’
A powerful amphetamine tablet based on the original synthetic drug known as fenethylline, Captagon quickly produces a euphoric intensity in users, allowing Syria’s fighters to stay up for days, killing with a numb, reckless abandon.
‘‘You can’t sleep or even close your eyes; forget about it,’’ said a Lebanese user, one of three who appeared on camera without their names for a BBC Arabic documentary that aired in September. ‘‘And whatever you take to stop it, nothing can stop it.’’
‘‘I felt like I own the world high,’’ another user said. ‘‘Like I have power nobody has. A really nice feeling.’’
‘‘There was no fear anymore after I took Captagon,’’ a third man added.
Captagon has been around in the West since the 1960s, when it was given to people suffering from hyperactivity, narcolepsy, and depression, according to a Reuters report published in 2014. By the 1980s, according to Reuters, the drug’s addictive power led most countries to ban its use.
The United State classified fenethylline as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act in 1981, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service
Still, the drug didn’t exactly disappear. VOA notes that while Westerners have speculated that the drug is being used by Islamic State fighters, the biggest consumer has for years been Saudi Arabia. In 2010, a third of the world’s supply — about seven tons — ended up in Saudi Arabia, according to Reuters. VOA estimated that as many as 40,000 to 50,000 Saudis go through drug treatment each year.
‘‘My theory is that Captagon still retains the veneer of medical respectability,’’ Justin Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology and psychotherapy at the UAE’s Zayed University and author of ‘‘Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States,’’ told VOA in 2010. ‘‘It may not be viewed as a drug or narcotic because it is not associated with smoking or injecting.’’
Five years later, production of Captagon has taken root in Syria, long a heavily trafficked thoroughfare for drugs journeying from Europe to the Gulf States, and it has begun to blossom.
‘‘The breakdown of state infrastructure, weakening of borders and proliferation of armed groups during the nearly three-year battle for control of Syria, has transformed the country from a stopover into a major production site,’’ Reuters reported.