Jordanian air strikes break Syrian silence over drug trade

Jordan's swift and tough military action has forced Damascus to address a problem it has long sought to ignore. Meanwhile, sources claim Iranian involvement in weapons smuggling.

An archive photo of a Jordanian F-16 aircraft.
An archive photo of a Jordanian F-16 aircraft.

Jordanian air strikes break Syrian silence over drug trade

Syria's foreign ministry recently commented on one of the most serious and pressing problems in the Middle East: its role in the regional drug trade and the infiltration of criminal gangs along its border with Jordan.

It largely mirrored a statement made by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last August, expressing regret over his country's role in the Middle East drug trade and admitting that it served as a distribution point and blaming other countries for the problems within his borders.

At the time, observers viewed the admission of Damascus's inability to crack down on the trade as proof of its increasing weakness.

Amman caught off-guard

However, the recent statement contained some new claims that caught Jordan off-guard. It accused Amman of indifference to Syria's proposals for border management and claimed Damascus's attempts at communication were met with silence, implying a snub from Jordanian authorities.

The statement shocked authorities in Amman, who believe Damascus is the one that has not been unresponsive.

Jordan has repeatedly complained that its appeals for border cooperation have been largely ignored. It accuses Damascus of turning a blind eye to a growing criminal and terrorist network operating along its southern border with Jordan.

Deciding enough was enough, Jordan last year began conducting air strikes in southern Syria to deal with the drug threat itself. On 18 December, its army launched a massive security operation against drug traffickers — the largest of its kind.

An archive photo of Jordanian soldiers guarding the Nassib crossing on the border with Syria.

Read more: Jordan takes its war on drugs to Syria

The timing of the Syrian statement has raised eyebrows in Jordan. Sources in the country believe it is an attempt to proactively address the prospects of further Jordanian air strikes in southern Syria.

They targeted smuggling hubs equipped with advanced technology, which led to the capture of smugglers deep inside Syrian territory. Now in Jordan’s custody, key intelligence can be extracted from these criminals.

Expanded operations

The smuggling crisis along the border is intensifying in scale, extending beyond the rampant drug trade that has already flooded Jordanian streets, creating a serious social problem.

Sources indicate that these operations now include weapons smuggling. The objective appears to be to smuggle munitions into the hands of militia groups backed by Iran.

There are also disturbing reports of organ trafficking.

The smuggling crisis along the border is intensifying in scale, extending beyond drug smuggling to weapons smuggling. The objective is to get these munitions into the hands of Iran-backed militias.

Jordanian security sources say smuggling operations have become increasingly sophisticated and coordinated. Before Jordan began its air strikes, up to 200 smugglers were found to be involved in a single operation.

This level of organisation and scale developed because Syria has turned a blind eye to the operations. Damascus hasn't even responded to calls to repatriate the bodies of Syrians killed in smuggling operations inside of Jordan.  

Jordan views the Syrian statement as a way to divert attention from the recent arrest of smugglers and, secondly, to capitalise on the growing public outrage in southern Syria toward smugglers who have risen to power in local communities. 

War on drugs

King Abdullah II officially declared a war on drug trafficking in February 2022, wearing full military attire. He promised swift action against drug trafficking and smuggling across national borders.

Jordanian intelligence believes Iran is using Jordan as a conduit in its regional drug trafficking operation. But it also believes it to have hidden political motives.  

A reliable Jordanian security source revealed that some top-level smugglers operating between southern Syria and northern Jordan confessed to receiving orders from officers in the Syrian army's Fourth Division, led by Brigadier General Maher al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad's brother. 

These orders — given in the presence of Iranian operatives — included directives to discard million-dollar drug shipments if any danger was perceived during transit.

The tactics reveal a deliberate strategy to protect the networks being used to get drugs into the Arabian Peninsula via Jordan. Despite Amman's efforts to mitigate the damage, the influx continues, with drugs being more accessible and affordable than ever. 

This picture taken on July 27, 2022, shows a view of sacks of confiscated captagon pills at the judicial police headquarters in the town of Kafarshima, south of Lebanon's capital, Beirut.

In Jordan, the cost of a Captagon tablet — an addictive amphetamine-type stimulant at the centre of the smuggling — is as low as ten piasters. A pack of Joker, used to produce 30 cigarettes, costs only three dinars. 

Read more: Does al-Assad hold the keys to dismantling the Captagon trade?

Crystal meth, the most expensive illegal drug, can reach up to $100 per gram. In some areas, drugs are sold below cost, making them accessible to a broader demographic.

Some top-level smugglers operating between southern Syria and northern Jordan confessed to receiving orders from Syrian army officers in the presence of Iranian operatives.

Economic lifeline

The drug trade has become a crucial economic lifeline for the Syrian regime. Iranian-backed groups, including Hezbollah, lend support to operations.

Tehran itself even provides direct technological and logistical support, including drawing up a strategic plan targeting routes to the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and European coastlines. This collaboration dates back to 2013 and has been pivotal in expanding Syria's drug trade. 

Research by the Syrian Dialogue Centre indicates that the drug economy — especially the Captagon trade — is estimated to be worth about $16bn annually, according to the Syrian government's 2022 budget.

The same study shows that the authorities in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa confiscated approximately 173 million Captagon pills – enough to weigh 34.6 tonnes and worth $3.46bn – and 12.1 tonnes of cannabis originating from Syria in 2020. 

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