Jordan studies its options as Assad fails to stop drug smuggling
Jordan’s delicate rapprochement process with its northern neighbor, Syria, seems to have suddenly stopped. Last month in New York, King Abdullah voiced his frustration with President Bashar Assad’s inability to stop the smuggling of drugs from his country into Jordan. Speaking at the Middle East Global Summit, King Abdullah said he was unsure whether Assad was fully in charge of the country in light of the “major problem” of drugs and weapons being smuggled into Jordan.
“We are fighting every single day on our border to stop massive amounts of drugs coming into our country,” he said. “And this is a major issue that all the parties, including some people inside the regime, and the Iranians and their proxies, are all taking advantage of.”
A few days later, his Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi was quoted by CNN as saying that trafficking of the addictive amphetamine Captagon from Syria to Jordan had only increased since the normalization talks that led to Assad’s return to the Arab League in May.
Jordan was the first Arab country to take steps to normalize ties with Damascus after Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended following the eruption of the anti-regime uprising in 2011 and the civil war that followed. King Abdullah tried to convince the Biden administration to accept “regime rehabilitation” instead of “regime change” in 2021, stressing that Assad was the legitimate leader of Syria. The US has imposed sanctions on the regime and thousands of its soldiers have been in northeastern Syria since 2014 fighting Daesh through an alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
King Abdullah warned that the kingdom would take all necessary measures to protect itself from future threats from the Syrian crisis
Al-Safadi, who has visited Damascus a few times and met with Assad, had proposed an Arab solution to end the Syrian crisis in return for restoring Syria’s seat in the Arab League. The UAE also invited Assad to visit Abu Dhabi earlier this year, while Riyadh issued an invitation to the Syrian president to attend May’s Arab League summit in Jeddah, which he did.
But the quid pro quo did not work. Assad has not indicated that he is willing to engage in an Arab solution to end the crisis in his country and has, so far, done nothing to curb the smuggling of drugs into Jordan. As a result, it now appears that other Arab countries are joining Amman in suspending talks with Damascus.
Western reports speak of intricate drug-making and smuggling networks involving Hezbollah, the regime and Iran that are worth more than $50 billion annually. While some drugs reach local distributors in Jordan, larger quantities are moved to the Gulf region and beyond.
Syria has become a narco-state, yet the windfall profits resulting from such activities go into the pockets of key figures in the military and pro-Iran militias. Meanwhile, the Syrian economy is on the brink of collapse.
For Jordan, reopening its borders with Syria following the liberation of Deraa from rebel groups in 2018 was meant to improve bilateral ties and pave the way for the normalization of relations. Jordan’s 370-km border with Syria, running through largely empty and challenging terrain, was infiltrated by smugglers until King Abdullah ordered the army to alter its rules of engagement and do whatever it took to stop the smugglers. Amman protested to the Syrian government and provided evidence that the Syrian military protected smugglers and facilitated their attempts to enter Jordan.
The chaos and power vacuum in southern Syria is a cause of genuine concern for Jordan and drug smuggling is only one aspect
The Jordanian army said it had intercepted thousands of smuggling attempts since 2020 and, in recent months, had shot down dozens of drones coming from the Syrian side. Jordan’s air force is believed to have launched two airstrikes against suspected Captagon facilities in southern Syria between May and August. There is chatter in Amman that more may be coming following King Abdullah’s stern words, as he warned that the kingdom would take all necessary measures to protect itself from future threats from the Syrian crisis that could impact its national security.
King Abdullah is talking about weapons smuggling as well. Recently, Israel accused Iran of smuggling weapons to Palestinian militant groups through Jordan, ordering Mossad to investigate the claim.
Civil unrest in the Suwayda governorate, which has been raging for more than a month, is also being watched by Jordan. King Abdullah warned that the kingdom cannot receive any new waves of refugees. The country is hosting about a million Syrians and recently stated that they should return home.
A few weeks ago, two pro-government columnists wrote about Jordan and the drug war in the local media, calling for a tough response to Syria’s indifference to Amman’s complaints. One, Maher Abu Tair, mentioned creating a buffer zone, while the other, Malek Athamneh, wrote about “American proposals to help Jordan” protect its northern borders.
One informed source confirmed that Jordan is studying several options on southern Syria, including launching more airstrikes, but that Amman is avoiding any “boots on the ground” scenario. Walid Phares, a one-time adviser to former US President Donald Trump, tweeted that Washington is considering setting up “free zones” in Syria over the events in Suwayda and revelations that two US members of Congress had been in contact with the Druze community’s highest religious figures there.
With Moscow occupied by the war in Ukraine, the Russian military presence in southern Syria, which Amman had welcomed, appears to be no more. The chaos and power vacuum in southern Syria is a cause of genuine concern for Jordan and drug smuggling is only one aspect. The rise in Daesh movements in Syria’s eastern desert and the activities by pro-Iran militias in southern Syria keep Amman on its toes.
Keeping its lines of communications open with all parties, Al-Safadi held a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last month. According to media reports, the two ministers discussed the Syrian crisis and its resolution in line with the “step-for-step” process, whereby the Syrian regime is reintroduced to the international community in exchange for reforms. But Al-Safadi also “stressed the need to stop the threats the crisis poses to the security of Jordan and the region.”
For now, contacts between Amman and Damascus are on hold, but only after Jordan delivered a message that its patience over what is happening along its northern borders is running thin.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. X: @plato010