All is not quiet on Jordan’s northern front
Jordan is facing an unusual threat with at least one pundit labeling it a full-fledged, “open war.” During this month alone, the Jordanian Armed Forces have thwarted several narcotic-smuggling operations from Syria, at least two of which saw drones being used. And it is not drugs alone that Jordan is fighting to stop, but an alignment between drug cartels in Syria and terrorist organizations that could see the latter use the proceeds garnered to finance operations, not only against the kingdom but beyond.
Furthermore, Jordan is frustrated with the Syrian regime’s failure to curtail what has been described as an “organized” smuggling network that extends from Lebanon to southern Syria. So organized, that Syria has been dubbed a major narco-state with a multibillion-dollar drug-smuggling network. A top export is the synthetic and highly-addictive stimulant, Captagon, called “the poor man’s cocaine” selling for about $3 a pill. Millions of pills, made in labs in southern Syria, find their way through Jordan to Gulf states and also Europe.
The Jordanian army altered its rules of engagement two years ago to give its soldiers on the border a free hand in dealing with smugglers. In January 2022, the army killed 27 smugglers trying to cross the 375 km border with Syria. Last May, the Jordanian air force is said to have carried out a raid hitting an alleged Iran-linked drugs factory and killing a smuggler behind big hauls across the two countries’ shared border. Jordan’s government has not officially acknowledged the raid.
The issue has become a major security challenge for Jordan. When Jordan re-opened its land borders with Syria — after Syrian government forces retook the Daraa border crossing in 2018 — Amman hoped a deal could be reached with Damascus to end all drug-smuggling operations. Jordan’s leaders held high-level meetings with Bashar Assad and were instrumental in urging other nations to normalize ties with the regime, culminating in Assad attending the Arab Summit in Jeddah last May. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others had called for a political solution to the Syrian crisis but Assad never responded.
Of concern is the relationship between the Syrian regime and the cartels. Facing biting Western sanctions, the regime — for economic and political reasons — is believed to have allowed, and benefitted from, drug networks. Jordan has accused Syrian army officers of being part of these smuggling operations. But its concerns were never addressed.
Now there are fears that terrorist networks, including Daesh, are regrouping in southern Syria and may benefit financially from the drug-smuggling operations. Katrina Sammour, a Jordanian security analyst, wrote in her blog this week that there has been a resurgence of Daesh’s Wilayat Houran — the name of the south Syria branch of Daesh. Since the beginning of 2022, this extremist group has been methodically enhancing its presence, particularly in areas surrounding Daraa, Badiyat As-Suwaida, and Syria’s Badia. She adds, however, that there is no evidence connecting Wilayat Houran to any drug trafficking in the south, which is primarily monopolized by Iran-backed groups and armed forces tied to the Assad regime. There is also no evidence so far of outside funding.
It is important to note that Jordan is mainly a transit country for drugs coming from Syria.
Sammour said that the kingdom has been allocating resources to counter armed groups that may attempt to cross the border and launch attacks. While there is no evidence linking some armed groups to drug-smuggling operations, it may well become a reality. This could see weapons and fighters crossing the border, posing another significant threat and burden for Jordan.
Meanwhile, two prominent Jordanian newspaper columnists have hinted at the need to give the Jordanian military a free hand. Writing in Al-Ghad daily, Maher Abu Tair said that Jordan is “angry with Damascus” because the latter has done nothing to address the country’s concerns. He said that Jordan has not yet created a buffer zone in southern Syria, similar to Turkiye’s in the north, because it was hoping that the Syrian government would take action.
Abu Tair said that this was a security file that had to be taken away from politicians, but added that a buffer zone cannot be created without the participation of the region’s nations and the US.
On the same day, Malek Athamneh, a Jordanian commentator also writing in Al-Ghad, said that this was an “open war’ and blamed Jordanian diplomacy for seeking to avoid any embarrassment that may arise from taking it up with Syria. He referred to US plans to back Jordan in its war against drugs coming from Syria and blamed Damascus for not honoring its promises.
Both were probably referring to statements made by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who told a Jordanian news channel that drug-smuggling groups pose a significant danger, especially if they are linked to terrorist organizations. He said there were several terrorist organizations that have ties to drug-trafficking gangs.
So where does Jordan go from here? Imposing a buffer zone inside Syria will serve two main immediate objectives: stem drug smuggling and cripple terrorist organizations from coming close to Jordan’s borders. However, such an operation requires international backing and will be costly to maintain. It will not be welcomed by the Syrian regime, which has to choose between backing the drug cartels and normalizing ties with Jordan and other Arab countries.
But it is important to note that Jordan is mainly a transit country for drugs coming from Syria, which are aimed at markets in the GCC and Europe. The smuggling network and labs in southern Syria have to be eradicated. Critically, whatever Jordan chooses to do must be supported by countries in the region as well as the US. It is vital to ensure that there is no funding from this source for terrorist groups.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.