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How Suwayda became a drug-smuggling hub

In Syria’s southern Suwayda province, suspected Jordanian airstrikes hunt drug traffickers and kill civilians. Regime-linked gangs operate with impunity and smugglers ferry drugs over the border. Local armed groups fight back. How did we get here?

26 March 2024

SUWAYDA — Fear and anxiety hangs over Suwayda’s border villages. The source is new: neighboring Jordan, a country that for years was not on the list of life-threatening concerns for people in the southern Syrian province. In recent months, however, Jordan has been associated with a string of airstrikes targeting drug traffickers and taking civilian lives. 

Many families fled Arman, a border village in Suwayda’s southern countryside, in January after it was hit by two of three airstrikes reportedly conducted by Jordan at the start of the month as  part of its anti-drug trafficking operations. 

One of the strikes caused an explosion near the home of Munis, one Arman resident, “shattering our house’s glass,” he recalled. “The target was Faris Saymoua, one of the biggest drug traffickers in the area.” However, the bombing “missed his house and hit the sheep barn instead, killing the entire herd.” 

The bombing in his village left Munis at a loss. “Do I stay at home or leave, for fear of being bombed again,” he asked himself. The next day, he fled with his entire family to Suwayda city, the provincial capital, “searching for a safer place.” 

On January 18, Arman was hit again. This time, eight civilians were killed, including four women and two children. The strike targeted Majdi al-Halabi, a drug trafficker in Arman, but also missed, hitting the house next door instead. It “left civilians feeling that the Jordanian airstrikes do not care about the lives of the innocent,” Munis said.

Demonstrators at Suwayda city’s al-Karama Square—which has been the center of a local movement against the Syrian regime since August 2023—reacted to the reported Jordanian strikes. On January 19, activists in Suwayda mourned the victims of the bombings, demanding that civilians be spared.

Ayman Shaibeddin, a Suwayda-based human rights lawyer, called the bombings “a war crime against civilians,” adding “we haven’t heard that the pursuit of drug smuggling is carried out by fighter jets.” He called for “Jordan to be held judicially accountable for killing civilians, and be obligated to provide compensation for victims’ families and all the damages to their property.”

Shaibeddin did not deny the proliferation of “drug gangs” in Suwayda. But “their head is the regime, not civilians,” he told Syria Direct

Jordanian officials have repeatedly stated that their country is waging a “drug war” along its northern border with Syria. At the start of 2022, the Jordanian army changed its rules of engagement to increase the use of force against smugglers coming from Syria. However, Amman has not claimed responsibility for airstrikes targeting border villages in southern Suwayda. 

How did Suwayda get here? 

Drugs are among the top concerns of countries in the region, as well as the international community. Syria has become a major drug producer and exporter in recent years, posing a threat to neighboring Jordan, through which drugs flow to Gulf countries.  

On the international stage, in December 2022, United States President Joe Biden signed an annual National Defense Authorization Act that included the “Countering Assad’s Proliferation Trafficking and Garnering of Narcotics Act,” known as the Captagon Act. 

Suwayda province has emerged as a key link in the Syrian chain of drug manufacturing and trafficking, which involves many figures with ties to the Syrian regime. In 2022, equipment and presses for manufacturing captagon pills were found at a headquarters of the Raji Falhout group, a local armed group in Suwayda with ties to Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

Syria Direct has attempted to trace the rise and spread of drug trafficking in Suwayda province. According to intersecting local sources, Brigadier General Wafiq Nasser—who was appointed head of the Suwayda military security branch in October 2011—played a key role in the drug trade’s spread throughout Suwayda and neighboring Daraa. 

Within two years of Nasser’s arrival in Suwayda, drug smuggling—which previously existed, but at a low level, with isolated cases—became “more organized,” Muhab, a commander with a local faction, told Syria Direct. One central figure in this organizing process was Abu Yassin Ahmad Jaafar, a man originally from the Daraa town of Busra al-Sham with family ties to Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon.

“Abu Yassin bought a farm south of the town of al-Qurayya, 20 kilometers from the Jordanian border,” Muhab said. “He set up a drug trafficking and smuggling network, in cooperation with the al-Balaas groups affiliated with the Bedouin tribe in the area.” Jamil al-Balaas, one of the figures in Suwayda wanted by Jordanian authorities for involvement in the drug trade, has ties to Syrian military security. He also previously worked as the director of Wafiq Nasser’s office when he was the head of the Suwayda military intelligence division.

“In two years, Abu Yassin managed to turn his farm into a site for exporting drugs and weapons, working with a network of Bedouin and Druze livestock traders,” Mahab said. “Drugs would arrive at Abu Yassin’s farm under military and security protection. They were then distributed to Bedouin networks to transport them outside Syria’s borders.”

In 2015, an armed local group from al-Qurayya raided Jaafar’s farm and captured him, then handed him over—along with seized narcotics—to criminal security in Suwayda. Hours later, he was released. 

Three years later, the Men of Dignity movement—the largest and most powerful faction in Druze-majority Suwayda—kidnapped Jaafar in March 2018. In a video filmed after his capture, he confessed to being involved in planning the 2015 assassination of the movement’s founder, Sheikh Wahid al-Balous. He also said he ran a network smuggling drugs to Jordan and other countries. While Jaafar’s statements intersect with accounts provided by other sources, he is visibly injured in the 2018 video, and was killed by the faction some time afterwards. 

In the recording, Jaafar mentions several names of people he claims are involved in drug smuggling. Some of those listed have been recently targeted by suspected Jordanian airstrikes, including Faris Saymoua and Marei al-Ramthan.

The killing of Abu Yassin Jaafar, the linchpin of the drug trade in southern Suwayda, coincided with the appointment of Major General Kifah Mulhim, in 2018, to succeed Nasser as head of the local military intelligence division. During his tenure, Mulhim has been able to entice many local factions and gangs to work for him, providing their members with security cards that allow them to move about without inspection. 

Two years after Jaafar was kidnapped and killed, a local military group affiliated with military intelligence and led by Nasser al-Saadi launched an operation against the Sheikh al-Karama Forces, an anti-regime group led by al-Balous’ sons that split off from the Men of Dignity. In April 2020, the Sheikh al-Karama faction was eliminated in the city of Salkhad, 10 kilometers from the Jordanian border. Thereafter, the city became a smuggling hub, and al-Saadi became the top drug trafficker close to Lebanese Hezbollah.

The smuggling chain

Three links make up the chain of drug smuggling operations in Suwayda. The first consists of groups tasked with communicating with manufacturers and moving their product to Suwayda. These groups sometimes also participate in production, as in the case of the Falhout group—which was eliminated in July 2022—and the Mazhar family group. 

The second link in the chain is made up of those who secure the drug route that passes through Suwayda to groups in southern villages who in turn smuggle the product into Jordanian territory. This link consists of Nasser al-Saadi’s military group, which cooperates with the head of the military security detachment, Muhammad Ali Ghalia, one local source in the city told Syria Direct. The al-Saadi group provides logistical needs, “bread and food, with 100 bundles of bread transported daily to Bedouin groups in al-Shaab village.” 

Following Jaafar’s death in 2018, drug trafficking activity in the border villages shifted to Faris Saymoua in Arman—the village reportedly bombed by Jordan in January—which neighbors Salkhad. 

Saymoua, a livestock trader in southern Syria, was convicted of smuggling multiple times throughout the 1990s. After 2011 however, the regime used him in its interest, through Brigadier General Issam Zahreddine, a Republican Guard commander originally from Suwayda.

Saymoua established a network of drug traders with the goal of securing the arrival of drugs from within Suwayda to Bedouin smugglers scattered along the Syrian side of the Jordanian border. 

The third link in the chain of Suwayda’s drug trade are the “carriers” who cross the border carrying drug shipments. Most carriers are Suwayda Bedouins in the village of al-Shaab, led by Marei al-Ramthan before he was killed in an airstrike last May. Al-Ramthan headed up a military security-affiliated militia that participated in many operations for the regime, including a June 2022 campaign against the opposition Anti-Terrorism Force faction. 

“Middlemen with ties to al-Ramthan recruit young men to transport across the borders,” a young man who said he was offered work for al-Ramthan to carry drugs into Jordan told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity for safety reasons. Carriers “are between the ages of 15 and 25, divided into groups of five or seven,” he added. 

“The group’s leader gets $2,500, and the members receive $1,500 if they are able to deliver the load to the other side of the border,” the source said. “The agreement is to cover a certain distance. The carrier reaches a specific point, drops his load and returns. A group inside Jordan takes care of the rest.” 

“The group sets off without mobile phones, at a time set by the group leader. The group may wait several days for the leader’s signal to set off. Weather conditions play a role in determining the date, to make hiding from the Jordanian border guard possible.”

On the Syrian side of the border, “Syrian border guards’ activity is a formality, not effective in covering smuggling networks,” he added. 

From the Jordanian military’s perspective, “undisciplined forces” in the regime army work with drug smugglers and carry out smuggling activity, as the head of Jordan’s Border Security Directorate, Brigadier General Ahmad Hashim Khalifat said in May 2022. He described Jordan’s border with Syria as “among the Kingdom’s most dangerous borders today.” 

Government absence or collusion?

Responding to Amman’s targeting of suspected drug smugglers within Syrian territory, Syria’s foreign ministry  said in a January 23 statement that there was no justification for the strikes. The escalation “does not at all correspond to what was agreed between the two sides’ joint committees regarding sincere cooperation to combat all violations, including criminal smuggling gangs and drug traffickers,” the statement read.

However, it appears Damascus has either not decisively dealt with the drug issue, or it has a hand in the trade. Recent years have seen the repeated catch and release of multiple figures connected to drug trafficking in Suwayda.

In September 2021, the state security branch in Suwayda arrested Raji Falhout, one of the most prominent leaders of military security-backed gangs, who has been accused of kidnappings and drug trafficking. Hours later, however, he was released. 

Around 10 months later, Suwayda’s Men of Dignity movement took part in a campaign, alongside local armed groups, in a campaign against local gangs in July 2022. When one Falhout headquarters was stormed, a captagon manufacturing lab was discovered. Despite Falhout’s regime ties, Damascus made no official statement. 

Read more: Damascus silent as military security-linked ‘Falhout group’ is uprooted in Suwayda

In December 2022, the regime arrested al-Ramthan, the head of the drug smuggling network, who was later targeted by Jordan, but released him days later. In mid-2023, military intelligence in Damascus detained an official of the military security detachment in the Suwayda countryside town of Salkhad amid suspicions the arrest was related to his ties to drug smuggling groups. He, too, was released days later. 

Shaibeddin, the Suwayda-based lawyer, described these as “sham” arrests, through which the regime aims to “achieve political gains in the stalled Arab normalization process by claiming it is making an effort to eliminate the drug phenomenon and prevent their transit.” 

Jordan confronts smugglers

Up until 2021, Jordan’s border guards responded to drug smuggling by chasing smugglers, forcing them to flee towards Syrian territory and confiscating narcotics, as described in multiple official statements.

That changed in January 2022, when armed smugglers killed one Jordanian officer and injured three others. In response, Jordan announced it was changing the armed forces’ rules of engagement in dealing with the danger coming from its northern borders. 

One month after the change, in February 2022, Jordan announced it killed 30 smugglers and seized 16 million pills at the border. Colonel Mustafa al-Hayari, head of Jordan’s Military Information Directorate, said the implementation of the new rules of engagement at the border “fell heavily on the smugglers,” stressing that “any element entering no man’s land is vulnerable to targeting by the armed forces.”

In May 2022, the Jordanian army killed four smugglers on the border with Suwayda province. Those killed came from al-Shaab village, belonged to the al-Ramthan clan and worked for the al-Ramthan group, the local Suwayda 24 network reported at the time. 

In its report, Suwayda 24 noted that the Jordanian army had killed more than 50 smugglers, 30 of whom were members of Suwayda’s Bedouin tribes. 

In May 2023, al-Ramthan was killed—with seven members of his family—by a suspected Jordanian strike. His killing, as one of the biggest operators of drug carrier networks, indicated that Amman was adopting a new tactic: Going after smugglers inside Syria. 

In August of the same year, a drug manufacturing site in southern Syria was also hit by an airstrike. While Jordan did not announce or claim responsibility for any of the attacks, there were many indications that Amman was behind them, after noting “Syria’s official negligence in the fight against the manufacturing and distribution of drugs.”

After that point, Jordan turned towards striking the third link in the smuggling chain, targeting the heads of carrier groups in December 2023 and January 2024. This included the bombing of a farm owned by Nasser al-Saadi, who is responsible for protecting and securing smuggler networks. His home in Salkhad was also later targeted, though both raids failed to kill him. 

Shaker al-Shuwayer, also an accused member of the drug trade, was also one of the targets of Jordanian airstrikes in December 2023, when the southeastern Suwayda village of Umm Shama was bombed. He also survived.

The latest airstrikes in Suwayda, in January, upset the public because the bombings took the lives of women and children. In response, the Men of Dignity movement issued a statement calling on Jordan to “stop military operations against civilian sites, show wisdom and foresight, and not jeopardize our historical relations. We also ask it to exercise caution, all caution, when conducting any operation, and inform us of their military movements and coordinate with us.” 

In its statement, the movement called on Jordanian authorities to provide a list of the names of those involved with the drug trade in Suwayda, so the faction could, with the help of other local forces, “pursue them, question them and hold them accountable if their involvement is proven, by all available legal and tribal means.” 

Following its statement, the movement launched a military campaign at the end of January 2024, during which it raided “a number of drug traffickers’ dens.” The campaign resulted in “the capture of six people involved in various crimes, including robbery, theft, assault on property and drugs,” it said.

On March 3, a local armed group in the Suwayda countryside village of Mayamas captured two people who were in the possession of a quantity of drugs.

One source in the Men of Dignity denied the existence of any direct communication between the faction and Jordan regarding its military campaign on the ground. “The movement needs international support, but that hasn’t happened so far,” the source told Syria Direct

Although “it has not been met by anything on the Jordanian side,” the source said the Men of Dignity’s confrontations with drug smugglers over the past two months align with Jordan’s objectives. For example, Shaker al-Shuwayr—who Jordan reportedly previously targeted with an airstrike—was killed on March 6 in clashes with a local armed group.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, one local source told Syria Direct that al-Shuwayr’s killing was “an attempt to spare Suwayda from further Jordanian bombardment.”


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

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