When Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense package, sending it to the president this week, it kicked off a legislative whodunnit with a multibillion dollar trade in illicit narcotics on the line.
Captagon is an addictive amphetamine that’s made massive inroads across the Middle East; experts fear that this could be the start of an epidemic-level crisis that could destabilize U.S. allies in the region and spread to Europe. Forces controlled by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad produced billions of dollars worth of the substance in 2020 — a kleptocratic enterprise that props up the Syrian government and lines Hezbollah coffers.
Worse, the New York Times quoted a Jordanian official as observing a threefold increase in the amount of crystal meth — which shares some chemical similarities with captagon and can be made in converted captagon labs — leaving Syria since the start of the year.
The captagon issue came to a head in Washington this month when, after the House released new compromise language for the defense bill, it came to light that an amendment dealing with the captagon issue had been mysteriously removed. The stripped provision would have required the president to come up with an interagency plan to stem Assad’s captagon smuggling activities. In the end, congress only expressed its support for cracking down on captagon exports in a non-binding statement explaining the NDAA compromise language.
Although the Biden administration isn’t standing in the way of crafting such a strategy, observers note that it also has yet to prioritize the issue by crafting a government-wide and multilateral approach to push back against Assad’s narcotic trade. The White House did roll out an administration-wide effort to combat drug trafficking this week, but that doesn’t seem to have much to do with captagon smuggling specifically, which experts say will require a concerted campaign coordinated between different government agencies.
Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaking to a group of Syrian Americans said that the amendment was removed due to an administrative error and pledged to get it back into the final version of the NDAA. “We continue to support and hope the Senate provides a path to amend the House-passed language to include priorities for the Chairman, including tackling the Assad regime’s Captagon production,” his spokesperson told me last Thursday, before the Senate passed the NDAA without amendments.
What’s strange about the situation is that the captagon provision received support from Republican and Democratic leaders of multiple committees in both houses that needed to sign off on its inclusion in the compromise text.
While a source said that Senator Sherrod Brown, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, opposed the amendment in favor of a watered-down version, his office flatly denied that, saying: “He supported efforts to have administration officials report to Congress about drug trafficking in Syria. He did not push for the removal of the amendment, and he did not object to including it as a reporting requirement.”
A Republican Senate banking spokesperson also said that Brown didn’t oppose the amendment.
A Republican staffer who worked on the amendment suggested that hair-splitting disagreements at the staff level over the text of the provision, not its substance, could have tanked it.
“Because Congress couldn’t agree where to put a comma, Assad can sleep soundly at night knowing he can produce more drugs, make more money, and the U.S. government won’t be coming up with a strategy to stop him.”
This isn’t the end of U.S. efforts to counter the production of captagon. Representatives French Hill and Brendan Boyle yesterday introduced a standalone version of the NDAA amendment they championed, and the administration could still act without congressional pressure. The State Department, for instance, could soon roll out some of its own measures to counter the captagon trade.
But Assad’s drug smuggling is the sort of intractable problem that lies latent until it bursts into full view in the most destructive way possible, and Congress just missed a big opportunity to get this right.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the NDAA contains a weaker version of the captagon amendment. The bill’s text includes no provisions on captagon, though an accompanying statement calls for action on disrupting captagon trafficking networks.
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