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4th Division redeploys in Syria’s south in the wake of the US Captagon Act and Arab normalization

More than a year after withdrawing from southern Syria, the Syrian army’s 4th Division is returning. Analysts see it as a money-making move and a way to control the drug trade, coinciding with the US Captagon Act and regional Arab initiatives to resolve the crisis.

3 February 2023

PARIS — The 4th Division of the Syrian regime army has been working to reinforce its presence in southern Syria since late December, bringing military reinforcements to the area and recruiting local residents into its ranks.

Abu Muhammad, a former opposition military official who lives in the north of Daraa province, told Syria Direct that 4th Division reinforcements have reached “Daraa city, the Nasib [border] crossing and villages on the border with Jordan, including the guard posts spread along the Daraa side of the Syrian-Jordanian border.”

These moves came before the National Security Bureau—a Baath Party bureau that coordinates the work of Syria’s intelligence agencies—issued a decision on January 2 to redeploy the 4th Division. 

The forces, led by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad, were to redeploy to legal and illegal crossings and official border centers throughout regime-controlled areas in the form of checkpoints belonging to the 4th Division and Syria’s four security branches: military security, political security, state security and air force intelligence. The stated aim of the move was to stop the smuggling of funds, materials and goods, help control the exchange rate and borders and conduct inspections alongside customs agents. 

As part of reinforcing its presence, the 4th Division also opened the door for recruits to join its ranks in southern Syria in recent weeks. In that context, on January 12 unidentified individuals attempted to assassinate Muhammad Khair al-Ghazali in his Daraa hometown of Qarfa after he formed new groups for the 4th Division tasked with controlling all the villages near the Damascus-Amman highway in coordination with Lebanese Hezbollah, according to the Horan Free League, a local opposition media organization.

Syria Direct also observed several Facebook posts made by accounts belonging to the 4th Division calling for volunteers in different parts of Syria for a monthly salary of between SYP 225,000 and SYP 250,000 ($33-$37 according to the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 6,670 to the dollar). According to the posts, recruits would work ten days on and five days off, and defectors and those who defaulted on their mandatory military and reserves service could join after settling their status with the 4th Division’s support.

The 4th Division’s redeployment comes more than a year after it withdrew from the area under an agreement signed to end the regime’s military operation against the Daraa al-Balad neighborhoods of the provincial capital city in November 2021. That, in line with international understandings at the time, stipulated the 4th Division’s withdrawal from southern Syria, while small local groups of its volunteers remained.

These changes also coincided with United States President Joe Biden approving the Countering Assad’s Proliferation Trafficking and Garnering of Narcotics (CAPTAGON) Act on December 23, 2022. The law states that the drug trade linked to the Assad regime is a “transnational security threat,” and directs US security agencies to develop a written strategy within 180 days to “disrupt and dismantle narcotics production and trafficking and affiliated networks linked to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria” and neighboring countries.

Why is the 4th Division returning to the south?

The 4th Division is affiliated with the “Iranian current”—individuals and groups within regime military and security forces aligned with Iran—and has long played a primary role in the regime regaining control of several parts of Syria. 

Over the past decade, the 4th Division has grown to become the largest military division in the regime army, in terms of numbers and strength, especially after opening the door to join its ranks following the 2018 reconciliation and settlement agreements in East Ghouta, the Homs countryside, south Damascus and Daraa.

Alongside its military role, the 4th Division is accused of managing a number of illegal economic activities for the Syrian regime, including drug manufacturing and smuggling, human trafficking and extortion. 

Over the past two years, cross-border drug smuggling across the border into Jordan increased strikingly. But recently, a number of drug dealers who worked for the regime and Lebanese Hezbollah went into business for themselves, two former opposition military sources in Daraa told Syria Direct.

The 4th Division’s return to the south, then, is “tied to restructuring the production and smuggling of drugs,” according to Abu Zaid, a former opposition military commander living in the Daraa countryside. He pointed to the “regime arresting some drug traffickers in Daraa and Suwayda in the past weeks, before releasing them again.” 

On January 10, clashes broke out on January 10 between two groups accused of drug trafficking in the Daraa countryside. Abu Zaid saw this as a sign that “there is competition between gangs working in their own interests, and not for their employer as they used to, which the regime doesn’t want.”

Abu Muhammad, in northern Daraa, said redeploying the 4th Division has economic dimensions, to “increase its wealth by controlling the main and subsidiary roads, and the legal and illegal crossings in all Syrian regions, not just the south.” He called the 4th Division “Maher al-Assad’s money-making machine.” 

Despite the division’s ties to the drug trade in Syria, it “is not the main goal of the 4th Division’s return,” according to Salah Malkawi, a Jordanian researcher specialized in Syrian affairs. Rather, it “concerns Arab and Russian efforts to rehabilitate the Syrian regime” and resolve the crisis without the West, even as the US moves to combat the drug trade.

The 4th Division returning to control the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, and controlling territory along the Lebanese border, “restricts the drug trade to the 4th Division,” Malkawi told Syria Direct. This means Damascus “can control this trade, and stop it in the event of any political solution” or agreement with regional countries. 

Political analyst Rami al-Shaer, who is close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, disagreed. “It is natural for the 4th Division and the Syrian army to deploy, and for there to be observation posts along the entire Syrian border, called border guards,” he said. “In abnormal conditions, the border guards are reinforced by other military forces.”

Arab-Russian initiative

Since September 2022, international interest in Syria has returned, with three main parties competing for influence. The first is Moscow, which is trying to “change Syria’s strategic environment by bringing about rapprochement between the regime and Turkey, with Iran’s blessing,” Malkawi said. This annoys Washington, because it “could produce a major strategic shift in the region, and impose a new status quo that may go as far as pressuring the Americans to get out of the Syrian file,” he added. 

Washington, the second party, sees Moscow’s current actions as “harming American interests.” In addition to passing the Captagon Act in December, US moves include e “working to build a new Syrian opposition, rehabilitate forces in the al-Tanf area of the Syrian desert and reactivating communication channels between the Americans and [former opposition] military commanders in the Syrian south,” according to Malkawi. 

Meanwhile, a number of Arab countries believe “do not want to repeat the Iraqi model in Syria, and believe that there is room to reconnect with the Syrian regime and gain an Arab foothold that could prevent the regime’s complete shift towards Iran,” Malkawi said. 

In October 2022, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said his country was mobilizing for an Arab initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis, and called for a “collective Arab role to end it, in coordination with our friends and partners.” 

Safadi noted the initiative could be led by Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, based on relevant Security Council resolutions, to develop a roadmap for a negotiated settlement. The Arab position is in harmony with Russia’s stance, and at odds with that of the US, which rejects normalization with Assad.

While Moscow works to normalize relations between Damascus and Ankara, it is also trying to dispel Amman’s fears in the south “and address the abnormal situation,” al-Shaer said. 

On January 11, a high-level Russian delegation led by President Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, visited the Jordanian capital Amman and met with Safadi. The two sides discussed the Syrian south and countering drug smuggling to Jordan. 

In the context of this international interest, the 4th Division’s movements stand out as a message to the third party—Arab states—that the regime can “limit and control the drug trade,” Malkawi said, meaning it is possible to to open the door to communication with it to conclude future agreements, especially since it “has used the drug trade for blackmail.” Such a message aligns with proposals by Russia, which also uses drugs for leverage on Jordan and Gulf states, he added. 

But the researcher thought it unlikely for Moscow to have power over southern Syria. Jordan “has been aware since 2016 that the Russians are making promises and not keeping them—they are symbolically present in southern Syria, and have no military authority along the border.” Consequently, they have “no real ability to stop the drug trade, nor do they have interest in doing that.” 

Jordan and the Captagon Act

The October 2018 agreement to reopen the Nasib-Jaber border crossing between Syria and Jordan stipulated that Syrian political security would take over the Nasib crossing. The National Security Bureau’s January 2 decision to hand over the crossing to the 4th Division violates the agreement. 

Jordanian officials have accused the 4th Division of smuggling drugs across the border many times, and its return to the crossing heightens Amman’s concerns about an increased flow of drugs. 

In November 2022, analyst al-Shaer said in an interview published by a local Syrian website that “instability in the Syrian south and the activity of gangs smuggling drugs and weapons has become a threat to security and stability in Jordan.” He expected at the time that Jordan would be forced to conduct military operations inside Syria to eliminate drug trafficking gangs and ongoing smuggling operations. 

But today, “joint efforts between Russia, Jordan and Syria will prevent Jordan from having to carry out a military operation on Syrian soil in the south,” al-Shaer told Syria Direct.

Malkawi agreed, and ruled out any Jordanian cross-border military operation. Amman “realizes that the regime does not control all of Syria, and that there are officers and militias involved in drug trafficking, so Amman does not direct all the blame at Damascus.”

Instead, Jordan is “tightening border security, and we developed new tactics to deal with smuggling operations over the past year,” he said. 

The researcher expected Jordan to benefit from the Captagon Act, both as one of the countries affected by drugs produced by the Syrian regime and as a US ally. Amman could benefit from “training, rehabilitation and upgrading programs for the Jordanian Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and other law enforcement institutions,” Malkawi said.

“Coordination has begun with US authorities,” he added, and “there will be intelligence cooperation, because Jordan has a large amount of information about smuggling routes, the locations of laboratories, the names of people involved in this trade, major traffickers and the officers involved.” 

Jordan being one of the beneficiaries of the new US law raises questions as to whether it could spoil Moscow’s rapprochement or influence on the reported Arab initiative—the form of which is not yet clear—and whether the 4th Division could be directly targeted.

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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