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On Tehran’s radar: Jordan confronts growing drug threat on northern border with Syria

Escalating Jordanian military operations along—and across—its northern border with Syria signal a retreat from Amman’s “soft diplomacy” policy towards Damascus, accompanied by a growing sense of Iranian efforts to spread chaos within the country’s territory.

18 January 2024

AMMAN — Hours after Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited the Jordanian army’s Eastern Command this week, fighter jets carried out multiple airstrikes on locations in Syria’s southern Suwayda province believed to be linked to drug smugglers on Thursday. 

Amman has not claimed responsibility for Thursday’s airstrikes, which would mark the third time Jordan has bombed Syrian territory since the start of January. Syrian media and activists, however, said the dawn raids—which reportedly killed 10 people, including two children, in the towns of Arman and Malah—were carried out by Jordan. 

The latest strikes come as Jordan escalates military operations against drug smuggling across its northern border. 

During his visit in the hours before Thursday’s strikes, Jordan’s king was briefed by the head of the Eastern Command on the latest developments related to countering drug smugglers. Chairman of Jordan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Major General Yousef Ahmed al-Hunaiti, was also present. 

On the other side of the border, Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, the spiritual leader of Syria’s Druze who make up the majority of the population in Suwayda, received a delegation of residents of villages in the province’s south near the border with Jordan on Tuesday. In a filmed statement, he noted “we have a common enemy with Jordan, and we are united in fighting the phenomenon of drugs,” which he stressed “the local community rejects.” He also called for civilians to be left out of operations targeting smugglers.

In the southeastern Suwayda village of al-Shaab—one of the sites where Jordanian strikes targeted drug dealers on January 4—a statement attributed to the al-Ramthan clan was issued on January 6 vowing to protect the village from being used by drug traffickers. 

The statement denied “the presence of foreign-linked militias” in al-Shaab and said the clan would protect “the administrative boundaries of the village…and prevent and hold accountable anyone who crosses them.” It also noted that “drug smuggling and weapons are beyond the clan’s control,” adding that it could not protect a border that is hundreds of kilometers long. 

Al-Shaab was also hit by Jordanian strikes in May 2023, targeting the home of Marei Ruwaishid al-Ramthan, a drug trafficker and the head of the most powerful militia deployed in the Suwayda desert affiliated with Syrian military intelligence. Al-Ramthan, his wife and six children were killed

While Jordan has previously targeted drug smugglers on both sides of its northern border, Amman’s latest escalation began after Jordanian Warrant Officer Iyad al-Nuaimi was killed on December 12, 2023 during an armed clash with smuggling gangs in the Eastern Military Region. 

Four days later, Jordanian border guards clashed for more than 14 hours with armed gangs that fired RPG shells from within Syria’s borders, before the operation ended in the killing of a number of smugglers and the arrest of one of them. 

On January 6, border guards repelled additional armed groups of drug smugglers on the northern border, in an operation in which five smugglers were killed and 15 captured. Security forces also pursued smugglers who managed to enter Jordan and attempted to hide out in tents in the Ruwaished area. 

While Jordanian operations against drug smugglers along the northern border with Syria are not new, recent events signal a turning point in relations between Amman and Damascus as part of a diplomatic and military escalation. Amman is also pointing fingers at Iran, which it believes is driving smuggling operations in an effort to spread chaos in Jordan, official Jordanian sources told Syria Direct.

Since mid-2022, official Jordanian statements have described what is happening on the country’s northern border with Syria as a “war on drugs.” At the time, months after the start of the war in Ukraine, Jordan’s king warned that Iran and its proxies could fill any Russian military vacuum in southern Syria, leading to “a possible escalation of problems on our borders.”

Read more: Southern Syria’s drug war: Jordan’s options ‘limited’ as Iran expands

‘No voice in Damascus’

After months of “soft diplomacy” with the Syrian regime, and attempts to “rationalize” Damascus’ stance on drug smuggling and border control, Jordan publicly escalated its position towards Syria late last year for the first time since launching its “step-for-step” initiative that helped break Bashar al-Assad’s isolation in the Arab world after 12 years in the cold.

Speaking at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023, King Abdullah said “we will protect our country against any future threats the crisis could pose to our national security.” 

“Amman felt it had no voice in Damascus, and did not sense a clear response,” despite high-level diplomatic and parliamentary meetings to discuss the issue of drug smuggling and border control between the two sides, Jordan’s Minister of Government Communications, Muhannad Al Mubaidin, told Syria Direct

While escalating rhetoric towards its northern neighbor, Amman cabled Tehran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian through diplomatic channels to demand that Iran control militias affiliated with it in Syria. But “we also received no response,” Al Mubaidin said. This prompted Jordan to “press on in its war on drugs and confront any danger approaching its borders,” he said. 

Far from what was hoped for from Amman’s diplomatic approach towards Damascus and Tehran, the pace of smuggling and drug trafficking has increased, and developed to include arms smuggling by organized gangs. 

From ‘beasts of burden’ to ‘proxy’ militias

“Historically, the northern Jordanian border represented the only transit gateway for drugs coming from Syria towards Gulf countries and the region,” the former head of Jordan’s Anti-Narcotics Department, retired Major General Tayel al-Majali, told Syria Direct. But “since 2011, security coordination between Amman and Damascus authorities declined, and the pace of smuggling steadily and rapidly increased.” 

Since the Syrian regime retook control of southern Syria and the country’s borders with Jordan reopened in 2018, “captagon seizures jumped from a maximum of 10 million pills to around 100 million pills in 2023, or about ten times the amount,” al-Majali said. 

Smuggling operations have radically changed since 2018, al-Majali said. Smugglers “have transformed from individuals carrying drugs and crossing the border on foot or using beasts of burden, to militias of up to 200 armed individuals that are skilled in fighting and own drones.” 

While official Jordanian military statements regarding drug smuggling over the Syrian border were once few and far between, in the past two years they have come almost daily. Many incidents have resulted in injuries and deaths on the Jordanian side, prompting the country’s army to announce a change in the rules of engagement at the start of 2022. 

Around 40 documents of investigations and judicial decisions related to drug cases, reviewed by the reporter, showed the involvement of women and minors from Syria’s eastern desert—the Badia—and particularly from Suwayda, in smuggling operations.

These transformations, which coincided with the Syrian regime and its affiliated militias taking over Syria’s south six years ago, left Jordanians with the sense that Amman had become the next target of Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the region, after tightening its grip on four Arab capitals: Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sanaa. 

Suwayda-based journalist Rayan Maarouf, who heads the local Suwayda 24 news network, confirmed that the regime, Iran and Hezbollah are involved in smuggling operations in southern Syria. He cited testimonies by local residents, as well as interviews he conducted with smugglers, one of whom was the prominent trafficker Marei al-Ramthan who was killed last May.

In the summer of 2018, the Assad regime regained control of southern Syria under a settlement deal with Southern Front opposition factions. In exchange, it pledged to keep Hezbollah and sectarian militias out of the south. In reality, these militias came to run smuggling operations by “recruiting local residents in the Syrian Badia, training and arming them, exploiting their deteriorating economic conditions,” Maarouf said.

A local smuggler “is paid around $5,000 for each load,” he added. “This is a fortune, in a country where the average monthly income of most employees is no more than $25.”

The Syrian regime partners with Iran and Hezbollah in managing smuggling operations, Maarouf said. “Iran pumps drugs and weapons to its proxies, while the 4th Division [of the Syrian army], which is responsible for security checkpoints, facilitates their passage from Lebanon to Syria, in exchange for huge sums of money,” he explained. “The Military Intelligence Division, meanwhile, recruits local residents in Suwayda and Daraa through its agents from the Badia who carry security cards proving their ties to the regime—such as Marie al-Ramthan, Nasser al-Saadi, Faris Saymoua, Jamel Balaas and Shaker Shuwayr.”

More than drugs

Jordanian military expert Hashem Khreisat attributed smuggling groups’ insistence on repeatedly entering Jordan to them being part of a project “led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, to plunge the region into chaos through drugs and weapons,” he told Syria Direct

Khreisat thought it unlikely that Jordan would engage in any military action on the ground in Syria. At the same time, “it will protect its borders in every way possible,” he said.

“Iran is one of the old players in the Arab arena, and has expansionist projects based on creating divisions in societies and then exploiting them, as it has done in all the countries it has passed through,” Suwayda journalist Maarouf said. 

Viewed from this perspective, recent events indicate that Amman is in Tehran’s crosshairs, in Maarouf’s view. He cited how “supporters of the [Iran-backed] Popular Mobilization Forces flocked to the Jordanian-Iraqi border, in November 2023, under the pretext of entering Palestine after the events in Gaza.” Meanwhile, “the shortest route there goes through Syria or Lebanon, both of which are open to the Iranians and their affiliated factions.”

Former Jordanian Minister of Information Samih al-Maaytah held a similar view, saying that what is happening on the northern border “has gone beyond smuggling, to the point of targeting Jordan’s security and military,” he told Syria Direct

“Smuggling networks have intensified their activities recently in an effort to drain the border guards and weaken the northern flank,” al-Maaytah believes, to “allow drugs and advanced weapons to flow in, with the aim of forming a local militia targeting the security services from inside Jordanian territory.”

As Amman’s diplomatic path with the governments in Damascus and Tehran appears “stalled, and has not yielded results on the ground so far,” Jordan “can only resolve its crises with its own hands, relying on the efforts of its armed forces and military and security agencies,” al-Maaytah concluded.

Amman’s options

Jordan’s diplomatic activity to address smuggling was “damaging,” as strategic analyst Amer Al Sabaileh sees it. However, “maintaining open channels with Damascus and Tehran is considered necessary,” he told Syria Direct

Facing an escalating drug smuggling crisis and its impacts on Jordan, one solution for Amman to contain the crisis could be to “deal with the recipients of arms and drugs, and those collaborating with the smugglers, on its [own] territory,” in addition to “preventive and proactive intelligence work and military resolve on the border,” Al Sabaileh said. 

Amman can also “use its active participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition, which shares the same smuggling danger, to benefit from expertise, technology and assistance provided by allied countries, especially the United States,” in addition to pushing for “the activation of recent laws such as the Captagon Act approved by the US Congress last June,” Al Sabaileh added. “It may be difficult to eliminate smuggling networks that have established themselves in the border areas for years without a defined strategy of regional and international cooperation.” 

For the Syrian regime, which continues to deny accusations it is involved in the drug trade, it would be sensible to “demonstrate it is cooperating with Jordanian authorities to strike drug dens in its territory,” Sabaileh said. 

As part of Jordan’s “war on drugs” on its northern border, Amman aims to “develop an Arab and international strategy to help it in its fierce war against trained and armed militias that are targeting the northern border every dawn, with unprecedented determination,” Minister Al Mubaidin stressed.

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

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