Jordan’s drug war challenge on Syria border

HM King-Feb21 (4)
Soldiers of the Jordan Armed Forces-Arab Army patrol along the border with Syria to prevent trafficking, on February 17, 2022. (File photo: AFP)
AMMAN — The Emirates Policy Center (EPC) published a comprehensive study this week on Jordan’s war against drug smuggling from Syria. The study refers to Amman’s efforts to reengage with Damascus as of last summer, marking a turning point on Syria’s conflict timeline as well as the Syria-Jordan bilateral relations.اضافة اعلان

“While Amman is clearly not under the illusion that reengagement with Syria will solve all its problems, Jordan sees it as a more productive alternative than maintaining the status quo in its relations — that is, being part of western-led efforts to politically and economically isolate Syria,” the study said.

It added that “isolating Syria offered little if any solution to Jordan’s many problems: countering drug smuggling, repairing economic ties, security and economic stability in southern Syria, refugee return (at least partially), water sharing, and addressing the presence of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces on the Jordanian-Syrian border area.”

The study pointed out that drug smuggling and border security are perhaps the most urgent of Jordanian concerns, which have also been discussed in bilateral meetings.

The study said that “the Syrian regime has weaponized drug production and export, and more importantly has grown dependent on drug economy after the war, sanctions and the financial crisis in Lebanon near-destroyed the Syrian economy.”

The study suggested that only a regional approach could tackle the drug issue, and until such an approach is adopted — with a degree of support from the Syrian government — Jordan will continue to face a stream of narcotics.

“In other words, for the time being, securing Jordan’s borders seems the most realistic option that Jordan as well as regional actors have,” it added.

The study referred to drug smuggling on the Jordanian-Syrian border as a decades-old problem, driven by corruption under both the Syrian regime and Jordan’s convenient path to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf. At the end of 1990s, the US delisted Syria from the major drug-producing countries. “Thus, during the decade that preceded the civil war, Syria was considered more of a transit route, and so was Jordan,” the study said.

War in Syria has significantly altered that reality. A few years into the conflict, reports surfaced about increased production of illicit amphetamines in Syria. The specific narcotic fueling the smuggling is called Captagon, a type of amphetamine that acts as a psycho-stimulant. Reportedly, the production and export drastically increased in 2018, according to the study.

According to many reports, Hezbollah and President Bashar Assad’s younger brother Maher, the head of the fourth armored division, play a central role in managing the drug economy, which suggests that the economy is protected by the regime itself. Syrian drug production centers are scattered across the country and some are run by Hezbollah near Daraa.

Jordanian authorities, the study said, affirm that trafficking takes place all along the border. For decades smuggling took place in Jordan’s eastern region, where an unforgiving desert lies, and these routes remain active. Trafficking also occurs through the fluid border in the northwest (opposite Syria’s Daraa governorate) where drugs pass through the city of Ramtha and the governorate of Mafraq down to Maan, to go through the border with Saudi Arabia; a massive demand market where pills have been found to sell for as much as $16 each.

The study went on to say the issue took new proportions in 2019 when the Kingdom itself ceased to be a mere passage for such drugs, but rather a market. By 2020, Jordan publicly highlighted the issue, both with splashy media coverage of captured pills, as well as severe sentences for those apprehended smugglers. By winter of 2022 Jordan changed its rules of engagement with smugglers, and a border skirmish resulted in the deaths of 27 smugglers. Jordan has stated the importance of its fight against drug smuggling and increased resources towards it.

Part of Jordan’s approach to counter drug smuggling, according to the study, has been the strengthening of its border security with Syria, especially since according to security officials, Jordan is becoming not only a transit route but also a destination where lower quality product is sold for as little as $1 per Captagon pill. Jordan has raised the issue of border security with Syria during high level meetings in 2021, and has shored up its defenses against smuggling networks and also asked allies to help.

It is important to note that Jordan has not accused the Syrian regime of directly protecting and even managing drug traffickers; rather it has accused “militias,” “armed groups”, or porous borders and corruption, the study says. Nevertheless, there is near certainty in Amman that production happens under the regime’s protection.

In January 2022, amidst increased trafficking and related violence, a Jordanian officer was killed in a smuggling confrontation on the border. Shortly thereafter, the Jordanian military changed its rules of engagement. According to Jordanian authorities, 13 smuggling attempts are curbed by the relevant authorities every day with an emerging aggressive behavior and large number of smugglers (up to 200 persons) in one smuggling operation, according to the source.

Jordan has also received help from allies over the years, the study said. In 2021, the US gave Jordan $500 million for border security as part of its foreign military assistance — focused on stopping the drug traffic at its northern border. Seemingly, the US has also directed Syrian rebels that it sponsors in the Syrian Al-Tanf area in the desert where Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi borders meet, to conduct anti-drug smuggling operations.

The study concludes that “without coordinated effort to break the production wheel and network in Syria that includes targeting Hezbollah and 4th division, which help produce and traffic the drugs, and improve the economic situation for average Syrians, drug trafficking is bound to continue.”

To make matters worse, even if the Syrian regime wanted to eradicate drug production, it won’t be able to do so without building an alternative economy, which will be extremely difficult given the size of drug economy, state of Syria’s collapsed economy and western sanctions, it said.

The daunting enormity of these challenges means that Jordan will face a long-term rush of narcotics, and it needs to prepare for it, the study said. “The narcotics crises is simply bigger than Jordan, and larger than Jordan-Syria reengagement calculations, which partly explains the regime’s near inaction to stop narcotic production despite it being a Jordanian top priority,” the study said. Thus, border security remains crucial for Jordan, and perhaps the only tool to defend its interests for the time being. But, by defending its borders Jordan is also defending the Gulf’s borders with Syria, especially that the Gulf — and not Jordan — is a more lucrative and important market.

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