Drug smuggling from Syria poses national security challenge for Jordan

Drug smuggling from Syria poses national security challenge for Jordan

Drug smuggling from Syria poses national security challenge for Jordan
Jordanian soldiers patrol near the eastern Jordan-Syria border, Al-Washash, Mafraq governorate, Jordan, Feb. 17, 2022. (AP Photo)
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Jordan is facing a unique kind of national security challenge. It finds itself embroiled in an open-ended war with a highly sophisticated network of drug traffickers on its border with Syria. The threat is not limited to Jordan, which has been described as a drug transit country, with most narcotics finding their way to the Gulf countries, but this multibillion-dollar network is now posing a political and social threat to the Hashemite kingdom.
Drug smuggling from Syria is not new. But things have begun to get out of control in recent years, especially since the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011. At the beginning, Jordan was apprehensive about the loss of control by the Syrian regular army of the 360-km border with the kingdom. The fear, which was later realized, was that terrorist groups would fill the vacuum left by the Syrian army. Daesh and other radical groups did move close to the Jordanian border and Amman’s forces clashed with armed infiltrators.
When Syrian government forces regained control of Deraa in 2018, Jordan responded by reopening its side of the border with Syria. That move was followed by a decision to normalize ties with the Syrian regime for political and economic reasons. Syrian ministers were received in Amman and trade delegations visited Damascus in a bid to end the regime’s isolation. King Abdullah received a call from President Bashar Assad last October and it appeared the two countries were taking confidence-building measures to normalize ties. However, late last year, the smuggling of drugs intensified from the Syrian side. So much so that the Jordanian army had to change the rules of engagement on the border, issuing a warning that a shoot-to-kill order had been issued in an attempt to stem the rising tide of infiltrations, which had become almost daily.
What is worrying for Jordan is that the traffickers have become “organized,” as the Jordanian army put it, using drones and armed personnel to accompany smugglers. While the identity of these armed personnel has not been revealed officially, it is believed that members of the Syrian army have been involved, particularly the notorious 4th Armored Division under the command of Assad’s brother Maher.
The Jordanian army has hinted that members of the Syrian army deployed on the border may be involved in facilitating the passage of smugglers originating from Syria. It talked about tens of drug manufacturing locations close to the border, which are mainly involved in the making of narcotic pills. Hashish, most probably coming from Lebanon, is also being smuggled from Syria. Since the beginning of the year, Jordan’s army has killed more than 30 smugglers and thwarted the smuggling of millions of narcotic pills.
The fact that the smugglers are either armed or being protected by armed personnel has put Jordanian soldiers in danger. That prompted the army to change the rules of engagement. The situation has become so serious that King Abdullah last week visited the Eastern Military Zone to support the troops and call on them to deal firmly with infiltration and smuggling attempts.
According to a report by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research, “Captagon exports from Syria reached a market value of at least $3.46 billion” in 2020. Moreover, Syria is now among the top drug-producing countries in the region, along with Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has warned Lebanon about repeated attempts to smuggle narcotics into the Kingdom.
The fact that the Syrian government has not responded to Jordan’s complaints about the increase in drug-smuggling activities along its border is puzzling. And the idea that the Syrian government is somehow involved in this organized network raises many questions. It is now documented that Hezbollah uses the hashish trade to raise money for its operations. It is also documented that the Lebanese militia is establishing bases in southern Syria, not far from the Jordanian border. Amman had asked Russia, whose troops are present in Deraa, for guarantees that Hezbollah would stay far away from the border.

The fact that the smugglers are either armed or being protected by armed personnel has put Jordanian soldiers in danger.

Osama Al-Sharif

The threat to Jordan’s national security is indeed unique. It is now facing a network that is supported by some elements in the Syrian army and is using sophisticated methods to avoid interception. This war is a costly one for Jordan and it involves the entire region, including the Gulf. The task for Jordan is to locate and dismantle the local network that receives the narcotics and dispatches them to the Gulf states. But defending a long border with Syria means that Jordan needs external help. This is a war of attrition that is both costly and long.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has to come forward and explain why, after having taken control of the border with Jordan, that smuggling continues — and at an alarming rate. The issue has become so urgent that Jordan is left with difficult options to protect its security.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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