The growing Captagon trade in Syria and Lebanon has been given much attention in recent months. The networks involved in this trade, such as the Fourth Division of the Syrian Arab Army and other smaller armed groups in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and networks of smugglers in both countries, help extend its reach beyond the borders of Syria and Lebanon, smuggling Captagon to Gulf countries – especially Saudi Arabia – and even to Europe. The transnational nature of this illicit activity and its link to the context of the Syrian conflict requires international policies that take into account cross-border conflict dynamics, including how people can end up involved in illicit activities to cope financially. A key component of any such policy must be an understanding of the impact of the Captagon trade specifically and drug smuggling more generally on local communities, especially those residing in border regions between Lebanon and Syria.

The Syria-Lebanon border is dominated mainly by Hezbollah on the Lebanese side and armed groups on the Syrian side, with the Fourth Division of the Syrian Arab Army being the most influential Syrian actor in the Captagon trade. The course of the Syrian conflict has seen an increase in the number of Captagon factories – some primitive, some more advanced – set up in border areas dominated by armed actors. While the factories have been mainly set up in sparsely populated areas, getting involved in the booming drug trade is often one of the few ways for local residents to generate an income.

Several areas where Captagon factories have been set up are Syrian villages and towns that have seen significant population displacement because of the conflict, such as Madaya and Zabadani, where people either fled the violence or left because they were forcibly displaced by the armed actors that came to dominate these areas, namely Hezbollah and the Syrian army. But some residents remained and others moved from elsewhere to join them. The boom in the drug trade and the lack of other employment options for residents, as well as the dominance of armed groups and warlords, presents a serious challenge to any post-conflict settlement in Syria which includes repatriating the displaced. People with an economic stake in a geographical area are not going to readily give that area up. This raises concerns regarding the potential for supporting community cohesion in Syria following any future resolution to the conflict.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has purchased property and land in many eastern areas along the border with Syria. It has also declared a number of military zones in this region, which are inaccessible to the Lebanese authorities or to anyone not affiliated with Hezbollah. These zones help facilitate the military and non-military activities that Hezbollah engages in across the border and gives it sole security oversight that extends beyond the zones themselves and into surrounding villages where, as in Syria, drug factories recruit workers from the local communities. Even if there is a resolution to the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah’s political and military dominance in Lebanon and its engagement in Syria are likely to continue in some form – the drug trade across the border predates the start of the Syrian conflict. With the Lebanese state almost bankrupt and many border communities persistently ignored by its development policies, the appeal of the drug trade to populations in eastern Lebanon and its connection to Syria will not be easy to reverse. 

As the drug trade becomes an embedded aspect of everyday life for local border communities in Lebanon and Syria, young people abandon education to enrol in this trade. Vulnerable people are particularly exploited, being forced to engage in illicit activities, pay royalties to the ruling militias or endure harassment, fraud and intimidation. This situation increases the isolation of such communities and poses a challenge to national cohesion.

The international community must consider the impact of the Captagon trade, and the drug trade more widely, on local border communities when designing a policy to counter it. Alternative sources of livelihood must be offered to those who have ended up entangled in the drug trade to cope financially – what the Chatham House team working on the XCEPT project on cross-border conflict refers to as the ‘coping economy’.

This blog was originally published on the Chatham House website.