SCIENCE BEHIND THE NEWS: Bashar al-Assad’s Middle Eastern hammer is a drug called Captagon. It’s bringing neighboring states to their knees.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s position in the Middle Eastern political landscape is being reshaped due to his perceived control over the flow of Captagon, a potent amphetamine, from Syria, the Associated Press has reported. Arab nations have begun to ease Syria’s political ostracism, hoping that Assad will quell the drug’s spread that has caused widespread addiction in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan. This development has caused concern among Western governments who believe this rehabilitation will hamper efforts to conclude Syria’s protracted civil conflict.

Captagon smuggling is a matter of urgency for Arab countries, with hundreds of millions of tablets finding their way into their territories over time. The drug, produced mainly in Syria and Lebanon, is used recreationally and for maintaining alertness in demanding jobs. It is frequently smuggled disguised in faux fruit or even as ordinary domestic objects. This drug trade, estimated to generate billions of dollars, has offered a financial lifeline to the beleaguered Syrian economy.

Arab states hope to leverage Assad’s control over Captagon to achieve both political and financial gains. Assad may employ this newfound bargaining chip to attract funds for rebuilding and to garner regional integration. However, Western governments, including the US, UK, and EU, accuse Assad and his allies of profiting from and facilitating the trade, which has bolstered his rule amidst an economic meltdown.

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Captagon is the brand name for a synthetic stimulant drug called fenethylline. It was originally developed in the 1960s as a treatment for conditions like attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy, and depression. However, by the 1980s, medical use of Captagon was discontinued due to its high potential for abuse and addiction.

The drug increases the concentration of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, leading to feelings of euphoria, increased energy, and heightened alertness. These effects make it particularly popular among people who need to stay awake for extended periods, such as soldiers and those in high-stress or physically demanding jobs.

Fenethylline is a synthetic stimulant first synthesized by the German pharmaceutical company Degussa AG in the 1960s. At the time, there was significant pharmaceutical research ongoing into psychostimulants and their potential medical applications. The therapeutic use of stimulants dates back to the early 20th century, with amphetamines first being synthesized in the late 1880s and seeing broad use by the mid-20th century.

Ball-and-stick model of the captagon molecule, also known as fenethylline, fenetylline, and amfetyline, a drug used to make soldiers function without sleep.

Fenethylline is a prodrug, meaning that it isn’t active until metabolized by the body. It’s composed of amphetamine and theophylline, a bronchodilator related to caffeine. The combination was designed to give a milder, longer-lasting boost with fewer of the side effects associated with amphetamines. The drug was used to increase focus and alertness and to treat conditions such as ADHD, narcolepsy, and depression.

However, like many psychostimulants, fenethylline has a high potential for abuse and addiction. By the 1980s, concerns about these issues led to its medical use being discontinued in most countries.

Despite this, illegal production and use of the drug have since proliferated. Unfortunately, the detailed history of the discovery and development of fenethylline, including the individuals directly involved, is not well-documented in publicly available sources, likely due to its status as a corporate development.

In recent years, illegal production and use of Captagon has become widespread in certain areas of the Middle East, including Syria and Lebanon. The Captagon produced today often contains a mixture of other amphetamines and caffeine, rather than pure fenethylline. Its illicit production and trafficking have been linked to various armed groups and have reportedly become a significant source of funding in the ongoing conflict in Syria.

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The recent airstrikes in Syria, presumably carried out by Jordan with Assad’s consent, exemplify the high stakes in the regional Captagon trade. Targets included a known drug baron’s home and a suspected Captagon factory. Jordan’s commitment to combating drug trafficking is underscored by its intensified border surveillance and combat against smugglers.

Negotiations with Syria on curtailing the Captagon trade have yielded preliminary results. A regional security coordination committee has been established, and Syrian authorities have committed to taking stronger action against smuggling.

While efforts are underway to control the drug trade, allegations and denials of involvement continue to cloud the issue. With such convoluted dynamics, the Captagon trade proves to be more than just a public health concern, as it reshapes the political relations in the Middle East. Furthermore, Western nations fear that the regional acceptance of Assad could undermine the broader peace process in Syria.

IMAGE CREDIT: DonkeyHotey.

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