Politics Behind Narco Trade Near Jordan’s Border


Photo source: Al Jazeera

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Jordan recently started talking against Iranian militias along its northern border. Amman accuses Tehran of using drones, among other methods, to facilitate drug trafficking along its border, which is shifting the balance of power in the area. They also believe that Iranian-affiliated groups have grown in influence in southern Syria in recent years.

Jordanian warnings against growing Iranian influence in Syria are nothing new. Since Tehran intervened in the war in 2014 in support of Syrian President Assad against rebels, Amman has been wary of getting caught up in the conflict.

By late 2021, drug smuggling activity had grown in scale and become increasingly violent. In January 2022, 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 the chairman of Jordan’s Joint Chief of Staff in January 2021 ordered a change in the rules of engagement indicating that the army had now adopted a 'shoot to kill policy' when it came to drug smugglers. Shortly after, the army announced that it had killed twenty-seven smugglers and seized 17,348 palm-sized hashish sheets and more than sixteen million narcotic pills.

The army believed 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 was 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.

The Jordan-Syria border is a 375 km-long rugged terrain that spans from the Golan Heights in the west all the way to the Iraqi border in the east. In one small pocket that remains outside of government control in the eastern section, the commander of the US-backed opposition Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra (Revolutionary Commando Army) believes that his area, which includes the Rukhban camp, is surrounded by Iranian militias with the aim of emptying out its population so as to control it. In a phone interview with Middle East Eye, the commander believes that Jordan is seen by these Iranian groups as the main transit point to the Gulf for the Syrian-made cheap drug known as Captagon. 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. In fact, 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.

It is also thought by the commander that the drug trade is the main source of funding for the Shia militias in the said area, especially because of the bad economic situation in Iran. As per his knowledge, these drugs are produced in large quantities in Homs and Qusayr by the Lebanese Hezbollah forces and then they are smuggled in coordination with some members of the Fourth Syrian Army infantry. Hezbollah is also believed to be smuggling hashish and Captagon from Lebanon through Syria into Jordan with the knowledge of the Syrian regime. But, Syrian government ally Hezbollah has repeatedly denied any role in drug trafficking in Syria.

Beyond security concerns, stability in southern Syria is vital for Jordan's economy, which has been deteriorating for a number of years, with the gross domestic product (GDP) declining since 2009.

At the same time, Mamdouh al-Abadi, former deputy prime minister, believes that good neighbourly agreements have resulted in keeping Jordan safe and no bombing has been registered on Jordanian soil from Iranians.

Since 2018, Jordan also has been working to upgrade diplomatic ties with Assad's government, with the hope of reopening the Nasib-Jaber crossing at the heart of discussions. The border crossing was reopened partially in 2018 but authorities were forced to close it again due to renewed clashes in 2021.

Historically, southern Syria has been more closely linked to northern Jordan than to northern Syria, being in the same Ottoman province. Though British and French imperialists created separate countries, family and tribal ties straddled the border, particularly around the Hauran region. Early in Syria’s war, the first refugees were Hauranis crossing into Jordan to seek shelter with relatives. Such connections helped forge important trade links; southern Syria and northern Jordan are economically dependent on each other in different ways. In addition, Syria provides Jordan with access to the Mediterranean and overland routes to Europe, while Jordan offers Syria access to the Red Sea and overland routes to the Gulf.

Yet, despite this cultural and economic closeness, political differences have prompted tensions. According to an article by Christopher Philips in Middle East Eye, since 1963, Syria has been ruled by left-leaning, anti-western Baathist autocrats, seemingly the polar opposite of Jordan’s pro-western, capitalist Hashemite monarchy. They were on different sides of the Cold War and had different regional allies.

In 1970, Syria even briefly invaded Jordan in support of Palestinian guerillas fighting a civil war with the Hashemites, and a decade later, Jordan was sponsoring Muslim Brotherhood militants trying to tumble the Syrian Baathist regime. In between these rounds of enmity also came phases of friendship, as the two states fought against Israel in 1967 and 1973 together. Ties were then again worsened in the 1980s when they favoured opposite sides in the Iran-Iraq War but warmed in the 1990s when both engaged with the Arab-Israeli peace process. As per Philips, the relations soured again in the mid-2000s when Jordan aligned with the US attempts to diplomatically isolate Syria after its involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri but warmed again a few years later when this isolation failed.

The scenario has also not allowed Jordan to take Syria out of regional isolation. It is highly likely that this current round of friendship will collapse into enmity whenever the next local or regional crisis pits Amman and Damascus against one another. It is also likely that such hostilities will eventually subside, as they always do. Such is the cyclical nature of Jordan and Syria’s turbulent ties.


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