The ‘war on drugs’ on the Syria-Jordan border

Jordan believes Iran and Syria use smuggling to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom.

Jordan’s King Abdullah visits his troops along the Syrian border on Nov. 29, 2021. Photo via the Royal Hashemite Court.
Jordan’s King Abdullah visits his troops along the Syrian border on Nov. 29, 2021. Photo via the Royal Hashemite Court.
Yoni Ben Menachem
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Jordanian soldiers killed four smugglers and wounded several others on May 22 in a clash at the Syria-Jordan border in the kingdom’s north. The Jordanian army seized a large shipment of drugs, which included 637,000 Captagon amphetamine tablets, 39,600 opioid Tramadol pills and 181 sheets of hashish, along with various weapons.

The last three years have seen an upsurge in smuggling from Syria to Jordan, and the Jordanian defense establishment is deeply concerned. In 2020, more than 130 smuggling attempts from Syria were made, and 132 million Captagon pills and 15,000 sheets of hashish were seized. In 2021, there were 361 smuggling attempts with 15.5 million pills confiscated. Since the start of this year, the Jordanian authorities have seized 20 million tablets of Captagon smuggled from Syria to Jordan.

In his capacity as supreme army commander, Jordan’s King Abdullah took a tour of the Syria-Jordan border, and on his recent visit to Washington, he raised the issue with top U.S. officials. This is not only a significant crime problem but also a security problem. Jordan says Iran and senior Syrian military officers are behind the smuggling for economic reasons, but also in order to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom.

Hence, Jordan has decided to launch a media campaign on the issue. It conducts a tenacious fight against the smuggling phenomenon even as Syria does nothing to curb it.

To facilitate the smuggling from southern Syria into northern Jordan, the Syrian smugglers have begun to use unmanned drones. The use of similar means to intercept airborne vehicles is under consideration by the Jordanian army.

Jordanian sources state that the smugglers receive a sum of 2,000 to 10,000 dinars ($2,820-$14,000) for each successful shipment.

Colonel Mustafa al-Hiyari, Jordan’s senior army spokesperson, told Jordanian TV on May 23 that “dangerous Iranian organizations are trying to undermine Jordan’s national security, and the Jordanian army is waging war on drugs at the northern border with Syria.” He emphasized that the smuggling is an organized effort supported by external actors. Iran, he said, has filled the vacuum created in southern Syria as Russian military forces leave for the war in Ukraine. In addition, al-Hiyari warned that Jordan is both a destination and a transit route to Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries.

Brigadier General Ahmed Hashem Khalifat, director of the Jordanian army’s Border Security Directorate, told Jordan’s Al-Ghad newspaper, “Undisciplined forces from the Syrian army are cooperating with drug smugglers and their gangs, which have become organized.” The drug traffickers and organized gangs in Syria “are supported by these forces and their security services, besides the militias of Hezbollah and Iran deployed in southern Syria,” he said.

Hezbollah’s connection to the drug industry involves the production of illicit drugs in factories in the Dahieh sector of Beirut, the Baalbek region and now Aleppo in Syria.

Syria is turning a blind eye to the smuggling

During the Syrian civil war, Syria became a Captagon superpower. Known as the “cocaine of the poor,” the drug is smuggled to Europe and Persian Gulf countries, often through Jordan. As a result, Captagon is very popular among teens in the Arab world.

The last few months have seen a major thaw in relations between Jordan and Syria. For the first time since the civil war broke out, King Abdullah spoke by phone with Syrian President Bashar Assad. In addition, the border crossing between Jordan and Syria was reopened, and delegations of senior Syrian officials have visited Jordan.

Among other topics, discussions have dealt with the smuggling problem. However, the Syrians have done nothing to put a stop to it. The explanation for this is simple: amid harsh American sanctions and Syria’s severe economic crisis in the wake of the civil war, the regime has turned the drug sector into an essential source of income.

The production and sale of Captagon have become a national industry in Syria. Millions of tablets are produced and smuggled each week, and Jordan is a critical factor in the smuggling. Its northern region is a conduit for the drug on its way to the Persian Gulf and Far East countries.

Security sources in Israel state that about 85% of the Captagon smuggled to Jordan makes its way elsewhere, and about 15% is for internal consumption in the kingdom.

American sources say the total value of Middle Eastern Captagon trade in 2021 came to more than $5 billion. In July 2020, Italian police found a shipping container in Salerno with 14 tons of the drug. The street value was estimated at 1 billion euros. Der Spiegel reported that the source was Assad’s family network. In another investigation by Der Spiegel, Syrian billionaire businessman Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, was accused of shipping four tons of hashish in milk cartons.

Maher Assad: The Syrian Pablo Escobar

Gen. Maher Assad, brother of the Syrian president and commander of the Syrian army’s Fourth Division, is called by some in the Israeli defense establishment “the Syrian Pablo Escobar,” a reference to the famed Colombian drug lord who headed the Medellin Cartel. Maher, for his part, is in charge of Syria’s Captagon-smuggling efforts.

The task of the Fourth Division is to secure the Syrian regime. It is also present in southern Syria and is responsible, among other things, for border security, including the border with Jordan. Maher’s troops control the port cities of Tartous and Latakia, which provides them with smuggling opportunities.

American sources state that the Captagon production facilities are under the control and protection of the Fourth Division. Other relatives of the Syrian president and military and political elites, who are looking for extra cash amid the difficult economic situation, are also taking part in the production and smuggling of the drug. For example, Samer Kamal Assad, the president’s cousin, is believed to operate one of many Captagon factories in the village of Al-Basa, south of Latakia.

In the assessment of security sources, the chances that the international community will force the Syrian regime to stop the production and trade of the drug are close to zero. The economic sanctions on Syria have made the drug trade a means of political and economic survival for the regime.

The international community is well aware of the Syrian drug industry and the regime’s involvement in it. Russian President Vladimir Putin is acquainted with the issue and gives full backing to the Assad regime. Jordan, the main route for smuggling Captagon to other countries, pays the price. Border incidents between Syrian smugglers and the Jordanian army are now a daily occurrence, and pro-Iranian militias have also stepped in to support the smuggling.

President Bashar Assad is not concerned. On the contrary, buttressed by Russian and Iranian support, he disregards all pressure.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director-general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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