Armed youths next to al-Tablin checkpoint, western Daraa province, after taking control of it, 1/3/2020 (Web)
PARIS — Southern Syria is seeing its third consecutive month of assassinations targeting individuals accused of involvement in the drug trade, a notable development in the region’s “drug war” that has raised concern in Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbor.
On July 12, a former opposition commander, Ahmad Faisal al-Saleh, was shot and killed by unidentified assailants while driving on the road between the Quneitra province towns of Jaba and Um Batna.
The assassination of al-Saleh, who led an armed group working for Lebanese Hezbollah since the summer 2018 settlement that returned southern Syria to regime control, had been accused of trafficking and dealing narcotics in Quneitra. His killing was one of 12 assassinations and attempted assassinations Syria Direct documented targeting those accused of involvement in the drug trade in southern Syria since May, leading to the deaths of 11 people.
The recent assassinations are part of broader insecurity in formerly opposition-controlled areas of southern Syria since the regime took control under a Russian-sponsored agreement in July 2018.
The killings also coincide with escalating Jordanian concern about growing Iranian activity on its northern border with Syria, as well as increased drug and weapons smuggling into its territory. They also came as Syrian opposition media circulated reports about Arab countries’ intent—led by Jordan—to establish a “safe zone” in southern Syria, which Amman denied earlier this month.
Hunting those involved
Days before al-Saleh was killed, Yaqoub Zakariya al-Safadi faced an assassination attempt by unknown individuals in the al-Aliya village west of Daraa on July 8, in which he was seriously injured. Al-Safadi has worked for the local regime military security branch since the 2018 settlement and has been implicated in trafficking and dealing drugs, local opposition media said.
On July 6, Muataz Numan al-Radi, his sons Khaled and Muhammad, and his grandson Bashar Qassem al-Radi were shot and killed by a local group under former opposition commander Emad Abu Zureiq. Abu Zureiq currently leads a local militia, headquartered in the Nasib village on the Jordanian border, that is affiliated with military security.
The incident took place at the militia’s headquarters in Nasib, after Abu Zureiq and another commander, Fayez al-Radi, invited the four men to Abu Zureiq’s office at the entrance to the Nasib border customs area. Muataz, his sons and grandson had been accused of involvement in the murder of a civilian belonging to a Nasib bedouin tribe whose body was found in June three days after he was abducted.
At its core, however, the incident traced back to disagreements between the two sides due to Abu Zureiq and Fayez al-Radi being accused of assassinating Muataz Numan al-Radi’s brother, who was accused of drug trafficking, in April.
In a separate incident, the bodies of Muhammad Taha Qanbar and Khaled Abdullah Qanbar were found in farmland surrounding the Daraa countryside city of Dael on June 30. Both had been accused of trading and dealing drugs in Daraa province.
Who is behind the assassinations?
With the recent targeting of people accused of trafficking and dealing drugs in Daraa, activists thought it likely that Jordan had a role in operations against drug-smuggling networks through local cells working for Amman. This view was supported by Jordan’s recent statements that its country faces a “drug war” against narcotics originating in Syria.
One former Ahrar al-Sham military commander, who lives in northern Daraa, went as far as to say “Jordan has a plan to break the local smuggling networks the 4th Division and Lebanese Hezbollah rely on in cross-border smuggling operations.” For that reason, “there is a possibility that Jordan could have a role in supporting local groups from the opposition military factions it previously supported to target figures implicated in drug trafficking,” he told Syria Direct.
But two other former opposition military commanders Syria Direct spoke to denied any Jordanian role in targeting drug traffickers. Although Amman “suffers from the same problems because of Iran, what is happening is not connected to any foreign agenda,” said Abu Ahmad, a former Southern Front commander who asked not to be identified by his real name for security reasons.
What is happening in southern Syria “is a local, covert military action against drug traffickers and dealers, carried out by the honorable revolutionaries and former opposition fighters,” according to Abu Ahmad. He said he works with a group hunting those involved in the Daraa drug trade.
“There was a meeting between groups of revolutionaries in southern Syria spread in most of the cities and towns of the Houran, and we agreed to strike the traffickers and those implicated in drug smuggling and dealing networks,” he said. Most of those targeted were “individuals linked to cross-border drug networks engaged in smuggling large quantities to Jordan,” he said. Some small-time traders, as he described them, “were sent warning messages to deter them.”
This information intersects with what another commander, Abu Muhammad, told Syria Direct. He said the campaign to target those involved in the drug trade came “after the spread of drugs in the local community in Daraa increased, and more people linked to the 4th Division and Lebanese Hezbollah started working in this trade.”
The illusory ‘safe zone’
In recent weeks, local media reported that former military figures in the Southern Front—the umbrella that included Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in southern Syria until summer 2018—attended a meeting in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to discuss the establishment of a “safe zone” in southern Syria. The reports came amid talk that Amman intended to revive opposition factions in the south, with Arab and Israeli support, in order to keep Iranian militias away from the border with Jordan and the occupied Golan Heights.
In May, Jordan warned that Iran and its proxies could fill any military vacuum left by Russia in the event of its withdrawal from southern Syria. Jordan’s King Abdullah II said at the time that it could lead to “a possible escalation of problems on our borders,” referring to Iran and Hezbollah’s role in smuggling drugs to Jordan.
Syrian lawyer Suleiman al-Qurfan, a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and the former head of the Daraa Free Lawyers Association, said 10 figures from Daraa, five from Quneitra and four from Suwayda attended a meeting in the UAE last month, alongside representatives from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. He declined to disclose the names of Syrian participants for security reasons.
The meeting, he said, resulted in “an agreement to form a 35-kilometer safe zone.” Al-Qarfan did not personally attend the meeting, and Syria Direct could not independently confirm that the described meeting took place.
The former Ahrar al-Sham commander in northern Daraa denied that southern Syrian representatives left to attend a meeting in the UAE. The UAE has not announced any details related to the alleged meeting.
A media source close to the 8th Brigade in Daraa’s Busra al-Sham said “there is no movement on the ground to establish a safe zone.” He also denied any communication regarding a safe zone between Arab countries and the 8th Brigade, which was formed in July 2018 with Russian support and is led by former opposition Southern Front commander Ahmed al-Awda.
However, the source did not rule out the possibility that “Arab Gulf states and Jordan [could turn] to such an option,” noting that it would be limited “to fighting Iran and Hezbollah only.”
On the Jordanian side, Ammon News Agency denied, through an unnamed official source, news spread on social media “related to establishing a safe zone on the Jordanian-Syrian border.”
Salah Malkawi, a Jordanian researcher specialized in Syrian affairs, thought the reactivation of opposition factions in southern Syria unlikely. “Jordan is convinced that today’s problems cannot be solved with yesterday’s tools,” he told Syria Direct. “The opposition factions experiment previously proved its ineffectiveness.”
“After summer 2018, Jordan does not want the border areas of southern Syria to be in crisis,” Malkawi added. “Jordan has new alliances, and has an Arab, regional and international green light from allies,” he said, though the country would, in his view, “intensify intelligence work to combat drug gangs and traffickers.”
After mid-July, “you will sense a clear difference from the Jordanian side in dealing with all threats coming from southern Syria,” Malkawi said.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.