The drug war unfolding on the Jordanian-Syrian border
Throughout the more than decade-old Syrian civil war, Jordan has found itself frequently involved, both directly and indirectly, in the chaos embroiling its northern neighbour. As the effects of the conflict spilled over the border, Jordan now hosts more than 1.2 million Syrians, half of which are living in two main refugee camps.
The financial impact of hosting so many refugees has been a burden on the Kingdom’s already fragile economy and exhausted infrastructure, costing the Jordanian Treasury more than one billion dollars annually.
At the outset of the crisis in 2011, Jordan sided with the popular uprising, with King Abdullah famously calling on President Bashar Assad to step down. The Syrian regime accused Jordan of facilitating the passage of arms to rebels in southern Syria and of opening training camps in the kingdom.
That lasted for a few years until the Russians stepped in to aid the embattled Syrian regime in 2015. Surprisingly, Jordan welcomed Moscow’s involvement in response to Turkey’s incursions in northern Syria, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s presence and the emergence of Daesh close to its own borders.
"The Jordanian Armed Forces found itself facing a new challenge: accelerating drug smuggling from Syria into Jordan. By late 2021, drug smuggling activity had grown in scale and became increasingly violent"
In 2015, Jordan completely closed its borders with Syria, which had been a major transit route facilitating trade. This took a toll on the struggling Jordanian economy, so when the Syrian forces retook Daraa in 2018, Jordan was quick to welcome the restoration of government control over border points. Last year, it fully reopened the border crossing and invited Syrian ministers to Amman to talk trade and economic cooperation.
While visiting Washington last year, King Abdullah suggested to the Americans a project to supply energy-starved Lebanon with electricity from Jordan through Syrian territory. The American embraced the initiative and relations between Amman and Damascus saw a rare thaw last year when President Assad called King Abdullah last October, the first time the two leaders talked since the outbreak of the conflict.
But while the Syrian army is now in control over most of the 360 kilometre long porous border, with few exceptions, the Jordanian Armed Forces found itself facing a new challenge: accelerating drug smuggling from Syria into Jordan. By late 2021, drug smuggling activity had grown in scale and became increasingly violent. In January a Jordanian army officer was killed and three army personnel injured when drug smugglers trying to enter the country from Syria fired at an army outpost along the border.
The situation had become so dire that last January the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered a change in the rules of engagement, indicating that the army has now adopted a shoot-to-kill policy when it comes to drug smugglers. Shortly after, the army announced that it had killed 27 smugglers and seized 17,348 palm-sized hashish sheets and more than 16 million narcotic pills.
Speaking to journalists on the northern border, the army announced that it was now facing an “organised” smuggling network that is using drones to monitor the borders and those smugglers are sometimes accompanied by armed groups.
The army said that it had contacted its Syrian counterparts for answers but received none. At one point it was reported that the Jordanian army discovered that dead smugglers were wearing Syrian army uniforms.
While the identity of these armed personnel has not been revealed officially, it is believed that members of the Syrian army have been involved in this drug trade, particularly members of the notorious 4th Armoured Division under the command of President Assad’s brother Maher.
Underlining the severity of the situation and the challenge his army is facing, King Abdullah visited his troops on the eastern front last February and “paid tribute to fallen martyrs” while calling on them to deal firmly with infiltration and smuggling attempts to protect society and young Jordanians.
Jordanian officials have voiced increasing alarm at a spike in attempted drug smuggling from Syria over the past year, including large quantities found hidden in Syrian trucks passing through its main border crossing to the Gulf region.
Attempts to smuggle drugs are not restricted to land, and last October the Jordanian army said it shot down a drone flying a large quantity of drugs across the border.
Jordan had been labelled as a transit country for smugglers with most narcotics passing through to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where there is a lucrative market for illegal substances. According to a report by the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research, “Captagon exports from Syria reached a market value of at least $3.46 billion” in 2020.
"With a flourishing illegal trafficking network in crisis-hit neighbours of Syria and Lebanon, and a growing market for narcotics in Gulf nations, Jordan’s battle against the illegal drug trade will likely prove costly as it faces an increasingly organised and sophisticated effort"
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.
There is concern among Jordanian forces that there are a number of narcotics factories close to its borders on the Syrian side. In addition, it is believed that the drug smuggling network might extend beyond Syria, with rumours that Hezbollah is smuggling hashish and Captagon from Lebanon through Syria into Jordan with the knowledge of the Syrian regime.
The drug war that Jordan finds itself embroiled in has cast a shadow over attempts to normalise ties between Amman and Damascus, frustrating Jordan’s earlier efforts to bring Syria out of its regional isolation. For now the opening of borders has not paid dividends for the ailing Jordanian economy.
With a flourishing illegal trafficking network in crisis-hit neighbours of Syria and Lebanon, and a growing market for narcotics in Gulf nations, Jordan’s battle against the illegal drug trade will likely prove costly as it faces an increasingly organised and sophisticated effort.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Follow him on Twitter: @plato010