American GIs took it to combat fatigue during World War II. U.S. Air Force pilots take it to maintain focus during long missions. College students take it to cram for midterms and party until dawn. For better or worse, amphetamine gets the job done. So it's no surprise "go pills" have become ubiquitous on the battlefields of Syria.
According to an article published in the Guardian, Syria is now one of the world's leading producers of a powerful amphetamine called Captagon. Some experts suspect that millions of dollars in profits from the export of the drug, primarily to other Arab countries, are being used to beef up arsenals on all sides of the fight, from pro-Assad government forces to ragtag groups of rebels. Meanwhile, it's being consumed habitually by soldiers who say it allows them to slog it out for days on end and kill with ruthless abandon.
Captagon is the trademark name for fenethylline, a synthetic stimulant first produced in the 1960s to treat a variety of disorders, including hyperactivity, narcolepsy, and depression. It's not unlike Adderal or Ritalin, except for you wont find this particular variety of amphetamine in English 101. That's because Captagon was banned in the United States several decades ago. It was just too powerful.
But, as they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure. As Captagon vanished from most of the Western world, the little brown power pill surged in popularity in the Middle East, despite the fact that it's illegal over there, too. And nowhere is it more popular right now than in Syria, where a security vacuum has allowed for the illegal drug trade to flourish, and where soldiers are willing to do whatever it takes to defeat their foes.
Several fighters who appeared in a recent BBC documentary on the subject testified to the drug's awesome effects. "There was no fear anymore after I took Captagon," one said. "I felt like I own the world," said another, "like I have power nobody has." Many claim their commanders gave them doses of Captagon right before major battles.
It's unlikely the drug will disappear any time soon. Captagon is cheap and easy to manufacture and is generally sold for around $20 a pill. And the increasing demand for it in neighboring countries, especially Saudi Arabia, is only fueling production while other industries grind to a halt. In an interview with Reuters, the head of Lebanon's drug enforcement unit reported that tens of millions of Captagon pills have been intercepted at the Syrian border over the past couple of years; in 2013, production of Captagon in Lebanon allegedly fell 90% due to the rapid increase of production in Syria.
Reuters also quotes a Syrian drug official discussing the difficulty of interrogating Captagon users. "We would beat them and they would feel no pain," he told the wire service. "Many of them would laugh while we were dealing them heavy blows. We would leave the prisoner for about 48 hours without questioning while the effects of Captagon wore off, and then interrogation would become easier."
Amphetamines may give fighters an edge over the competition, but habitual use, as with any other narcotic, is not sustainable. Captagon is extremely addictive, and that's apparently becoming an issue among Syrian militants. But in with a thriving black market in the absence of a functioning government (or a functioning anything else), it's unlikely this unfortunate trend will abate anytime soon.