Drug smuggling from Syria, security challenge for Jordan

Osama al sharif
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (Photo: Jordan News)
Jordan is facing a unique security challenge: it finds itself embroiled in an open-ended war with a highly sophisticated drug traffickers’ network on its borders with Syria. The threat is not limited to Jordan, which has been described as a drug transit country, as most narcotics finding their way to Gulf countries. This multi-billion-dollar network is now posing a political and social threat to the Kingdom.اضافة اعلان

Drug smuggling from Syria is not new. But things began to get out of control in recent years, especially after the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011. In the beginning, Jordan was apprehensive about the regular Syrian army’s loss of control of the 260-kilometer border with the kingdom. The fear, which was realized at some point later, was that terrorist groups would fill the vacuum left by the Syrian army. Daesh and other radical groups did indeed move close to the Jordanian border and the armed forces did clash with armed infiltrators.

When Syrian government forces regained control of Daraa in 2018, Jordan responded by reopening its side of the border with Syria. That move was followed by a political 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. His Majesty King Abdullah received a call from President Bashar Assad last October and it appeared that the two countries were taking confidence-building measures to normalize ties. But late last year the smuggling of drugs from the Syrian side intensified. So much so that the Jordanian army had to change the rule of engagement at the border: a warning that a shoot-to-kill order had been issued, to stem the rising tide of infiltrations that had become an almost daily occurence.

What is worrying, for Jordan, though, is that the traffickers have become “organized”, as the Jordanian army put it, using drones and with armed personnel accompanying smugglers. While the identity of the said armed personnel has not been officially revealed, it is now believed that members of the Syrian army have been involved; in particular, Syria’s notorious fourth division under the command of Assad’s brother Maher.

The Jordanian army has hinted that members of the Syrian army deployed at 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 Jordanian border, mainly involved in making narcotic pills. Hashish, most probably coming from Lebanon, is also being smuggled from Syria. Since the beginning of the year, the Jordanian army has killed over 30 smugglers and thwarted the smuggling of millions of narcotic pills.

The fact that smugglers are either armed or protected by armed personnel has put Jordanian border guards in danger. That has prompted the army to change the rules of engagement. The situation has become so serious that King Abdullah visited last week the eastern zone to support his troops and called on them to deal firmly with infiltrations 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 and Turkey. Saudi Arabia had warned Lebanon about repeated attempts to smuggle narcotics into the kingdom. Jordan is a major gateway for Syrian and Lebanese smugglers attempting to reach Gulf countries.

The fact that the Syrian government has not responded to Jordan’s complaints about the increasing 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 is involved in 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. Jordan had asked Moscow for guarantees that Hezbollah would stay far from the Jordanian borders.

The threat to Jordan’s security is indeed unique. It is now facing a network that is supported by some elements in the Syrian army using sophisticated methods to avoid interception. This war on drugs is a costly one for Jordan and involves the entire region, including the GCC. The task for Jordan is to locate and dismantle the local network that receives the narcotics and dispatches them to the Gulf countries. But fending the long border with Syria means that Jordan needs external help as well. 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, smuggling continues and at an alarming rate. The issue has become urgent and Jordan is left with difficult options to protect its security.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. 

Read more Opinion and Analysis