The seventh plague of Syria

A deluge of drugs

In Syria, communities battered by war and economic collapse now face an epidemic of drug use. A wave of addiction that began on battlefields and in barracks has now washed over nightclubs, households, and classrooms. In hard-hit areas, it is eroding an already tattered social fabric, fueling the dissolution of families alongside crime and sexual exploitation.

It is also overflowing across Syria’s borders, into a broader region boiling with despair. A frenzied international response has done little to stem the flow. Indeed, any solution to this regional crisis must start inside Syria, which foreign donors are more eager to leave than reengage with. It must also go beyond security crackdowns and tackle the social and economic woes at this problem’s core.

The crest

In the 2000s, drug use was confined to Syria’s fringes. “Drugs were present before the war, but only in certain neighborhoods,” recalled a middle class woman in her thirties, from the central city of Homs. “Around me, they weren’t even a topic of discussion.” A filmmaker outside Damascus echoed the point: In her experience, hashish was the province of edgy, liberal cliques, from rock bands to tech workers. At the other end of the social spectrum, young men in poor neighborhoods might hang out on street corners and pop pills like tramadol—an addictive painkiller available over-the-counter. While other Syrians would turn to pharmaceuticals like Xanax to manage anxiety, recreational use was rare and taboo.

This stigma began to dissipate amid 2011’s revolutionary fervor. Particularly among secular, left-leaning young people, hashish became increasingly normalized and available. As conflict escalated, many from those circles fled to Lebanon, where recreational drugs had long flowed much more freely than in Syria. This cross-pollination arguably helped speed the shift toward far greater social acceptance.

Meanwhile, on Syria’s widening battlefield, another set of drugs was catching on. As violence spiraled, factions doled out narcotics to keep fighters alert. Captagon, an addictive amphetamine, became a frontline favorite; while many outside Syria came to associate it with the Islamic State, it was said to be equally vital among pro-government forces. “Leaders gave us Captagon for free so we could fight all night,” said a former fighter from a loyalist militia, who today struggles with addiction. “From 2013 to 2018, we were all taking drugs more often than we were getting hot meals.”

Many locals argue that an influx of foreign fighters accelerated the trend. “Foreign militiamen expanded the drug business in Syria,” said a teacher in the Damascus suburbs, who has seen drug use—and drug dealing—creep into his school. Some hold Iran responsible for the emergence, in recent years, of crystal meth, a highly addictive stimulant. Others accuse the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, which is reputed to have carved out a lucrative niche smuggling goods and people between Syria and Lebanon. Such perceptions are rife, although evidence is hard to come by.

The crash

If the war’s escalation fueled Syria’s drug boom, the decline in hostilities did nothing to arrest it. If anything, the opposite proved to be true. In 2018, a string of government victories—first in Eastern Ghouta, then in Deraa, then in northern Homs—decisively turned the tide in Damascus’ favor. As fighting ebbed, drug handouts likewise decreased. But by that point many fighters were hooked. This spawned a growth market, as recalled by a young man who got recruited as a dealer: “After fighting stopped in 2019, all these militiamen stopped getting drugs for free, and had to start buying them from local dealers. The market became very active.”

The slowdown in combat didn’t just yield customers for a blossoming trade: It also produced entrepreneurs. For fighters who had spent years plundering conquered areas, the narcotics business became a logical next step. A school administrator in Sweida—whose location on the Jordanian border makes it a hotspot for drug trafficking—sketched this transition: “After fighting stopped, militiamen didn’t have enough money to buy their drugs. So, they got into peacetime crime: smuggling narcotics, smuggling fuel, kidnapping for ransom.”

This transition also worked for entire factions, on both sides of the conflict. Enterprising militia leaders carved out a space in the new drugs economy: “You can’t really tell whether a drug smuggler was originally with or against the government,” said a father from Deraa governorate, which, like Sweida, is on the frontlines of Syria’s drug crisis. “Some former rebels became pro-government militiamen and, at this point, all sides are selling drugs.”

Indeed, the industry’s rapid growth owes much to the fact that virtually everyone appears to be in on it: Syrians point as much to local gangs as they do to top-tier officials. A lawyer in government-controlled Syria shared a view that is as widespread as it is unverifiable: “Before the war, drug smugglers were looked down upon. Today, they drink tea with security officials in their offices!”

The cascade

While armed groups are central to trade, addiction and its knock-on effects quickly rippled out into society. “Drug use has spread like wildfire,” said the teacher in the suburbs of Damascus. This contagion started during the war. Young fighters, stocked with a steady supply of pills or hash, shared with civilian peers. “Teens were getting free drugs and handing them out to friends.” But this side-effect of conflict later became a peacetime business strategy: “Militias set up shop near high schools to attract teens with cheap drugs,” explained the teacher in Sweida: “They also recruit students to sell to their school friends.”

Syria’s descent into misery made it all too easy to find young customers. Trauma is widespread, and future prospects bleak. Parents are often consumed by daily struggles, and family or neighborhood networks have broken down. As a result, many youth need little convincing to self-medicate: “Young people escape by drinking and smoking hash,” said a 23-year old woman in Damascus. Such coping mechanisms, she added, have expanded beyond secular circles and into more religiously conservative ones, where they would once have been anathema: “Even a lot of very religious people smoke hash.”

Hardship tempts people not just to take drugs, but to sell them too. The young man who was recruited as a dealer explained his trajectory:

I was making five dollars a day working in construction from 8am to 6pm. To push drugs, a militia leader offered me 30 dollars a day, and gave me a motorbike and a pistol. I accepted because I need to buy medicine for my sick mother. That’s me, but thousands of people in Syria can’t get enough to eat, charities are running out of food, and fathers will do anything to feed their kids.

As trafficking and addiction spread, so have stories about drug-fueled criminality and other social ills. Syrians insist that narcotics are super-charging the breakdown of social fabric in numerous ways, especially in areas where drugs are most rampant: “I’ve met young women who sell sex to buy drugs,” lamented a doctor in Sweida. “Young men steal their mothers’ jewelry. Fathers get high and hit their wives and kids.”


Perhaps most ominous of all, Syria has precious little infrastructure to manage this crisis. The country’s mental health sector was underdeveloped even before the war, and has further eroded amid a relentless brain-drain. “Syria has no psychologists specialized in treating drug addiction,” claimed the doctor in Sweida, arguably with some exaggeration. “These people need medical help. Instead, we often imprison them.”

Absent formal treatment infrastructure, informal social ties—across families, neighborhoods, and schools—can help prevent young people falling through the cracks. The teacher from Sweida explained:

Teachers look out for signs of trouble: say, if a student is often sick, tired, or failing to do their homework. Then they tell the student’s family to discuss what is going on and who the student is spending time with. If they worry that a student is getting involved with drugs, they start paying extra attention.

Such attention, however, is not always forthcoming. Classrooms are overcrowded; teachers and parents alike are often overwhelmed by the grind of daily life. Some parents thus conclude that the best solution is to pick up and relocate. “I know families who moved their kids from one school to another to get away from drugs,” said the teacher in Sweida. “Others moved to Damascus.” Multiple interlocutors echoed this point: One family relocated from Deraa to the capital, while another tried switching schools within the Damascus suburbs. Many, though, lack the resources to move. The most vulnerable are thus left to suffer through this latest scourge, adding to those that came before it.

* * *

Left to swell, Syria’s drug trade has rippled outward across the region. Anxious to stem the flow, Arab states sought to enlist the Syrian authorities in sealing the country’s borders. As part of that push, regional powers ended, in 2023, Damascus’ 12-year suspension from the Arab league. This attempt proved in vain—unsurprisingly, given how integral drugs have become to Syria’s broken economy. This sector, moreover, has become so sprawling and sophisticated that it is unclear whether Damascus could rein it in even if it wished. Frustrated by lack of progress, neighboring Jordan has taken to bombing purported smuggling routes in southern Syria: a desperate, pointless escalation, which is unlikely to curb the drug trade even as it ends civilian lives.

This frantic approach evokes drug crises elsewhere in the world—not least in the United States, where decades of a “war on drugs” wrought havoc on poor communities without ever achieving its goals. Such parallels carry important lessons, not least that runaway drug use cannot be combatted by military means.

Indeed, there is much that can be done to help Syria and neighboring countries manage this crisis: notably massively scaling up support for addiction treatments, rehabilitation centers, awareness campaigns, and mental healthcare more broadly. Until now, such commonsense measures have been virtually absent from discussions of Syria’s drug trade. These center on ways to contain the spillover, rather than help Syrian society tackle the problem at root. We can waste many years before realizing this won’t work in Syria, any more than it does anywhere else. Or we can take a shortcut, and start now where it counts.

15 April 2024

This article was written by Alex Simon with fieldwork by Synaps' Syria team.

Grateful illustration credit: Elias Zayyat, “Untitled,” 1967 (via the Atassi Foundation).

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