- An uptick in violent incidents at the Syrian-Jordanian border between drug smugglers and the Jordanian army, with the former supported by the Syrian army and the pro-Iranian militias, has the king of Jordan worried, and he has asked Washington for help.
- Syria is the primary Middle Eastern producer and disseminator of the drug Captagon. General Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian president, is in charge of the smuggling network.
Jordanian soldiers killed four smugglers and wounded several others on May 22, 2022, in a clash at the Syrian-Jordanian border in the north of the kingdom. The Jordanian army seized a large shipment of drugs, including 637,000 Captagon amphetamine tablets, 39,600 opioid Tramadol pills, and 181 sheets of hashish, along with weapons.
The last three years have seen an upsurge in the smuggling from Syria to Jordan, and the Jordanian defense establishment is gravely 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 beginning 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 Syrian-Jordanian border, and in his recent visit to Washington, he raised the issue with top officials. This is not only a significant crime problem but also of security. Jordan says Iran and senior Syrian military officers are behind the smuggling for economic reasons but also out of a desire to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom.
Hence, Jordan has decided to launch a media campaign on the issue. It tenaciously fights the smuggling phenomenon even as Syria, for its part, does nothing to curb it.
To facilitate the smuggling from southern Syria to northern Jordan, the Syrian smugglers have begun to use unmanned drones. The Jordanian army is also considering using such means to try and intercept the airborne vehicles.
According to Jordanian sources, for each exploit, the smugglers receive a sum of 2,000 to 10,000 dinars ($2,820-$14,000).
Colonel Mustafa al-Hiyari, Jordan’s senior army spokesperson, told Jordanian TV on May 23, 2022, 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.”1 He emphasized that the smuggling is an organized effort supported by external actors. Iran, he said, is filling 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 that “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 Hizbullah and Iran deployed in southern Syria,” Khalifat said.2
Hizbullah’s connection to the drug industry involves producing the illicit drugs in factories in the Dahieh sector of Beirut, in the Baalbek region, and now in Aleppo in Syria.4
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 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 is simple: amid the 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 for the economy.
The production and sale of Captagon have become a national industry for 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.
According to security sources in Israel, about 85 percent of the Captagon smuggled to Jordan makes its way elsewhere, and about 15 percent 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. According to Der Spiegel, the source was President Assad’s family network.5 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.6
Maher al-Assad: The Syrian “Pablo Escobar”
General Maher al-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,” 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 securing the borders including the one with Jordan. Maher’s troops also control the port cities of Tartous and Latakia, providing them with smuggling opportunities.7
According to American sources, the Captagon-production facilities are under the control and protection of the Fourth Division. Also taking part in the production and smuggling of the drug are other relatives of the Syrian president and members of the military and political elites, who are looking for extra cash amid the difficult economic situation. For instance, Samer Kamal Assad, the president’s cousin, is believed to be operating one of many Captagon factories in the village of Al-Basa, south of Latakia.
In the assessment of security sources, the chances of the international community forcing 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 well acquainted with the issue and gives full backing to the Assad regime. Directly paying the price is Jordan, the main route for smuggling Captagon to other countries. Border incidents between the Syrian smugglers and the Jordanian army are now a daily occurrence, and the pro-Iranian militias have also stepped in to support the smuggling.
President Bashar Assad is not concerned. On the contrary, buttressed by the Russian and Iranian support, he disregards all the pressures.
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2 Jordan army official confirms Syria military assists drug traffickers – Middle East Monitor
4 Four killed as Jordanian army thwarts drug smuggling attempt from Syria (arabnews.com)
6 The Assads against the Makhloufs: A Bitter Feud over Power and Money Erupts in Syria – DER SPIEGEL
8 Assad Regime Implicated in Massive Captagon Bust (occrp.org)