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

Jordanian officials have termed their response to increased drug smuggling across Syria’s southern border a “war on drugs.” But the country’s options to address the roots of the problem are limited.

6 June 2022

PARIS — Jordan recently escalated its official statements about increased Iranian activity in southern Syria and drug smuggling into Jordan. “The army is waging a war on drugs at the northeastern border,” the country’s Director of Military Information, Colonel Mustafa al-Hiyari, said last month. 

Five days before al-Hiyari’s May 23 remarks on Al-Mamlaka television channel, Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned on the same outlet of Iran and its proxies filling a military vacuum left by Russia in the event of its withdrawal from southern Syria. That could lead to “a possible escalation of problems on our borders,” he said, calling Russia’s presence “a source of calm.”

Against the backdrop of an escalation in drug smuggling from Syria to Jordan, the latter’s military announced in January that it was “changing the existing rules of engagement” at the border, and vowed to pursue all those endangering its national security.

Iranian activity in Syria’s south, including smuggling drugs to Jordanian territory, is not new. But its pace has increased over the past three years, after the Syrian regime took control of southern Syria under a settlement agreement in the summer of 2018. This year has seen unprecedented levels of smuggling activity and confrontations between Jordanian forces and smugglers coming from Syria. 

Return of the 4th Division

In mid-May, the 4th Division’s command office in Daraa province opened registration for those wishing to join the Syrian Army formation, which is led by Maher al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s brother. Volunteers were to serve “in Damascus exclusively,” local opposition media reported.

The announcement followed a decline in the 4th Division’s presence in Daraa province after new settlement agreements were signed last September. The settlements followed an operation by the 4th Division and the “Iranian current”—individuals and groups within regime military and security forces aligned with Iran—to storm Daraa al-Balad neighborhoods. The Daraa al-Balad agreement, which halted the military operation and led to the 4th Division’s withdrawal from Daraa, was applied in Houran cities and towns. 

Since the latest settlement, the 4th Division’s presence has been limited to administrative and security offices, as well as some checkpoints and a limited number of military points. This does not negate its continued presence through local proxies, or those known as the “settlement fighters”: former opposition fighters who joined the 4th Division and other security and military agencies after completing the settlement. 

Even so, the September settlement played a role “in the decline of 4th [Division] activity,” Abu Muhammad, a former opposition military commander, told Syria Direct. “The vast majority of the settlement fighters have no loyalty to the 4th or to the Syrian regime.” 

The commander, who asked not to be named because he lives in a regime-controlled area north of Daraa, cited the “very weak” response of settlement fighters, most of whom are in the western Daraa countryside, “to 4th Division orders that it is necessary to join its ranks, and specifically the command of the 66th Regiment in Damascus.”

Confirming that, the commander of a local military group affiliated with the 4th Division in western Daraa, who previously fought with the opposition, said “no return has actually been recorded of the 4th Division to the centers and military points it was deployed at in Daraa province” prior to the September 2021 settlement. 

As a result of settlement fighters’ refusal to join the 4th Division camps in Damascus despite repeated calls to do so, the 4th Division command has issued “warrants for fighters who refused to join over the past months,” he told Syria Direct

“Officers from the 4th Division are in contact with those fighters to join in the capital Damascus, in exchange for ensuring they stop pursuing them and make a military settlement for them,” according to the commander of the group affiliated with the 4th Division. Even so, “a small percentage have joined,” he said. 

In return, the 4th Division opened “volunteering with civilian contracts for those from Daraa province who wish to do so,” the commander said, for terms of two years subject to increase.

Although the contracts are civilian, individual members (soldiers) who have not completed their mandatory military service undergo “a 45-day military training at the 4th Division camps in the al-Saboura and Yafour areas of western Reef Dimashq” immediately upon joining. The “officers class” who have not completed compulsory service are subject to “a three-month training for field services, and six months for specialization trainings, like drivers and gunners for tanks, BMP armored vehicles [Russian infantry combat vehicles], and Shilkas [self-propelled anti-aircraft guns], as well as reconnaissance and engineering specialty courses,” the commander said.

An individual volunteer who has not done military service receives a monthly salary of SYP 65,000 ($16.50 according to the parallel market exchange rate of SYP 3,955 to the dollar). If he has served before and is in the reserves period, he receives SYP 145,000 ($36.50). Volunteer officers receive SYP 80,000 ($20) per month without having completed service, while if he is in the reserves period, the salary reaches SYP 170,000 ($42.50) per month.

By opening the door to volunteers in the 4th Division, the regime seeks to “tame those who were previously in the opposition ranks, to throw them into future battles against IS in the Badiya and [against] opposition factions in northern Syria,” the 4th Division-affiliated commander said. In exchange, it “protects them from being detained by the security branches for their previous activity against the regime before 2018,” he added, as well as “enticing the weak-spirited with the gains they will receive from looting and robbing towns they take control of.” But that “will make them cannon fodder for battles on the front lines,” he warned. 

Spreading by proxy

In May 2017, a four-part agreement was signed between the US, Russia, Israel and Jordan that included, in essence, a pledge from Moscow to keep Iranian militias away from Syria’s border with Jordan and the occupied Golan Heights. Since then, Tehran has grasped the difficulty of a direct presence of its forces in southern Syria. 

Accordingly, Tehran has relied on its affiliates and the local military militias it supports, made up of recruits from southern Syrian provinces, to ensure its presence in the area and expand Iranian activity in southern Syria. In the wake of the 2018 settlement, Iran tried to recruit the largest number of former opposition elements through the Iranian current. 

Over the past years, Moscow has imposed a state of equilibrium in Syria’s south. It allowed the expansion of local Iran-affiliated militias and allowed the Iranian current to recruit in the area, but under its watch. 

Despite Russia’s declining role and Moscow stopping support for the former 8th Brigade of the 5th Corps, led by former opposition Southern Front commander Ahmed al-Awda, and transferring its affiliation to Military Intelligence Division 238 in Suwayda, a balance still exists in southern Syria, a media source close to the 8th Brigade told Syria Direct. But this does not negate “the marked increase in drug smuggling operations and attempts to Jordan,” he said. 

The media source, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said Jordan’s recent official escalation came “out of worry of an explosion of the situation on its borders, but the reality on the ground has not changed. 

In an apparent message of reassurance from Moscow to Amman, a Russian Military Police patrol, accompanied by Military Security head Brigadier General Louay al-Ali, toured the western section of the Syrian-Jordanian border one day after the Jordanian monarch’s mid-May remarks. But days later, Russian forces reduced the number of their elements at several military headquarters in Izraa city and the town of Muthabin north of Daraa, local opposition media reported.

Russian withdrawal suggests that “the Syrian file is no longer a priority for Russia,” former opposition commander Abu Muhammad said. In return, Tehran is trying to “expand and penetrate in the Syrian south, and to build a support base” which would also facilitate “its commercial and ideological activity in drug smuggling,” after Moscow had “reined it in in southern Syria.” 

Abu Muhammad warned that “Iran has a window of opportunity to contain or put an end to any military force in southern Syria that tries to stand up to its project.” He called for “international action to reactivate the opposition factions in southern Syria” with the aim of countering Iranian incursion. 

Jordan’s options

On May 25, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said a political solution is “the only solution” in Syria, and called for a “greater Arab role in finding this solution.” He also said Jordan cannot afford for more countries in the region to fail. 

Safadi’s remarks coincided with Jordanian military spokesman al-Hiyari’s statements that Jordan’s armed forces face a drug war on the country’s northeastern border. Al-Hiyari said that in the past three years, Jordan saw a doubling of smuggling and infiltration operations. 

He also accused “undisciplined groups of Syrian border guards and others” of supporting traffickers, describing smuggling operations as “systematic.” Jordan is facing the threat on behalf of the countries of the region and the world, he added. 

Jordan’s border is seeing daily smuggling operations, which consist of four groups of 10-20 people each: a reconnaissance group, a group working to distract the armed forces and another waiting for the right opportunity to smuggle contraband, according to al-Hiyari. He said Jordan seized more than 20 million tablets of captagon since the beginning of 2022, compared to 14 million tablets in all of 2021. 

Jordan has not yet seen “a real partner in protecting the border,” Brigadier General Ahmed Khalifat, the director of the Border Security Directorate, told Jordan’s al-Ghad newspaper in May. He stressed the need for regime forces to perform their duties.

Jordan’s recent escalation of its statements towards the Syrian regime comes less than a year after the normalization of relations between the two countries. But the significant increase in the number of smuggling operations and volume of contraband coming from Syria to Jordan could portend a change in Jordan’s position. 

While Jordan’s options are limited in the face of what it has called a “drug war,” returning support to some opposition factions and activating their role on the Jordanian border with Daraa and Suwayda provinces appears to be one available solution. Jordan resorted to a similar strategy during the period when the opposition controlled the area, expanding support for some factions outside the framework of the US-led Military Operations Center (MOC) operations room in Amman with the aim of protecting the border strip, as in the case of Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair. 

Alongside Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair, the 8th Brigade (formerly Jaish al-Sunna) led by Ahmed al-Awda—who maintains good relations with Jordan—is one candidate for Jordanian support should Amman resort to this option. 

While activists have circulated reports that Jordan met with former opposition military commanders in its territory, the media source close to the 8th Brigade denied any such information. However, he did not rule out Jordan resorting “to this solution as a last resort to control its borders.” 

But this option is not possible “without US or Russian support,” commander Abu Muhammad said, adding that “the regime and Russia will not allow the presence of a faction in southern Syria with Jordanian funding without their consent.” He added that if “the 8th Brigade obtained support without Russian consent, it would be a justification for the regime to dismantle it.” 

So far, it appears that Moscow does not want former opposition factions to intervene to control the Syrian-Jordanian border, Abu Muhammad said. “It prefers increased Iranian activity to put pressure on Israel, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf states” in order to strengthen its position amid the Ukraine war, he said. 


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

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