Did Jordanian-Syrian Relation Pass Narcotics Test?
This paper examines the developments of Jordanian-Syrian relations in facing a shared challenge: transnational drug gangs, which has proven to be an important factor in shaping the nature and premises of their joint agreements. From this viewpoint, the paper assesses the strengths and weaknesses in the understandings between the two countries.
by STRATEGIECS Team
- Release Date – Sep 20, 2022
Countries, no matter what their foreign policies may be, pay special attention to the nature of their interactions with neighboring countries due to their direct repercussions on national security. From this point of view, the Jordanian state has been working since the beginning of the Syrian crisis to monitor and neutralize as many risks as possible on its northern borders.
Given the multiplicity of actors within Syria, an ideal environment of complex risks shrouded in uncertainty and unpredictability was formed close to Jordan's northern border. Narcotics smuggling provides a telling example of these risks, as the intensity of smuggling had security and societal repercussions on the Jordanian scene.
Jordanian political and military leadership have declared that these operations are carried out through armed groups with close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. These terrorist groups also receive support by cross-border drug trafficking gangs of "undisciplined" elements of the Syrian army, according to Colonel Mustafa al-Hayari, the director of military media in Jordan.
These direct statements, made in June 2022, were based on advanced intelligence and military operations launched by Jordan's military and intelligence services. The weeks following these statements saw two noticeable shifts.
First, the transition of countering narcotics to the extensions of smuggling networks inside Jordan, where the Anti-Narcotics Section, supported by a specialized security force, carried out a comprehensive campaign targeting the stores of narcotic. This campaign was launched after Lieutenant General Hussein Al-Hawatmeh, the former director of Public Security, announced a "new operational phase" to target narcotics hideouts.
This was continued under the new director of Public Security, Major General Obaidallah Al-Maaytah, who announced during his first visit to the Counter-Drug Administration in September that the Public Security Directorate will continue its operations to eliminate the traffickers of death and drugs. According to statements issued by the General Security, this campaign differs from the previous ones in terms of its comprehensiveness, which covers various regions of the Kingdom and expands its targeting to include the assets incubating the drug sector.
This campaign also is different from previous ones in that the gangs are showing a boldness with increased organization and interdependence among themselves. The gangs spread rumors to influence the course of the campaign, sometimes using incubating environments. For instance, videos and photos circulated on social media that falsely accused security forces of besieging villages and towns, such as Ruwaishid on the border with Iraq, and cutting off their external communication. The General Security refuted the rumors, stating that it was a security check to prevent the escape of wanted criminals.
Thus, gangs are moving with a pattern of organized crime, expanding their tools to include even rumors, not to mention that some criminals have the will to challenge and engage the raiding force. One gangster who made an improvised bomb to blow up Counter-Drug officers as soon as they raided his house was defeated by intelligence monitoring that revealed his plan.
Second, in parallel with the internal campaign, clashes with smugglers on the Syrian-Jordanian border have declined since mid-July compared to the previous two months due to the coordinated efforts and understandings between Amman and Damascus.
Jordanian and Syrian authorities are now exchanging security information and showing flexibility. For instance, Syrian authorities responded to specific Jordanian requests, such as closing two narcotics manufacturing workshops inside its borders.
However, questions should be raised about the viability of continued cooperation, as well as Damascus' ability to defeat the drug cartel by a sovereign decision. According to the COAR Center, Syria is the largest producer of Captagon in the world.
A Temporary Truce or Stable Understandings on Borders?
It is natural for Amman to assess the Syrian government's performance of its border duties since it is one of the determining factors for Jordanian-Syrian relations. We will now examine the strengths and weaknesses related to the sustainability of the two countries understandings that concluded recently.
At the level of bilateral relations, it is in the interest of both parties to demonstrate good intentions in order to overcome a heavy legacy left by more than a decade of instability. They provide impetus to joint projects, such as electrical interconnection between Syria, which suffers from the collapse of its electricity capabilities, and Jordan, whose electrical network has a surplus that can be exported to its neighboring country.
Damascus is fully aware that Jordan's position on the Syrian crisis is being heeded by many capitals. The relationship between the two neighbors played a role in persuading the Biden administration to grant "specific exceptions" from the application of the penal code known as the Caesar Act to certain prohibited dealings with Damascus.
Now in the recovery phase, it is in the interest of the Syrian state to dry up the sources of narcotics from illegal armed parties that want the current conflict in Syria to continue. Due to their production and exportation of narcotics in Syrian territories, the aptly labeled "drug militias" have their own self-interests that oppose the legitimacy and stability that Damascus seeks to impose inside Syria.
Regionally, there is a cautious anticipation for a Middle Eastern transition phase after a decade of proxy wars and security collapses in several countries. The dominant feature of the past decade is that, despite the high costs, no party won. This realization fuels the recognized need to change the pattern of interaction towards cooperation and dialogue.
Thus, multilevel regional dialogues with Tehran are taking place via several channels. For the past ten years, Jordanian-Iranian relations have not been described as hostile. On the contrary, common positions have been recognized, such as the first handshake of its kind in 15 years between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the 2018 Extraordinary Islamic Summit in rejection of the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
More recently, Tehran welcomed King Abdullah's statement to Al-Rai newspaper in July 2022 regarding the need to build good Arab-Iranian relations. Iran’s approval came weeks after royal and military statements that Iranian parties were behind smuggling operations in Jordan.
In addition to regional and international dialogues enhancing Jordanian-Syrian border understandings, there are indications of a "political" de-escalation of the Syrian crisis. The "conflict" in Syria is now classified as low-level, if not altogether frozen. The situation has settled on a control map of the conflicting parties, with a sharp decrease in major military operations.
This type of conflict carries with it high risks. There are no incentives and consequences leading the parties to carefully think about abandoning the current stalemate. Operational de-escalation will remain temporary unless it is politically transformed into a formula for a solution through which external and internal parties can agree on an acceptable transition that takes into account all their considerations.
For years, most of "Friends of Syria" contact group members, as well as international and regional capitals that supported the rebellion against the Syrian government, came to view the Syrian crisis through their objectives: removing Iran from Syria, preventing the endemism of transnational terrorism in Syria, and controlling the unofficial organized armed groups and militias that have supported the Syrian state throughout the years of the crisis.
Of course, the Gulf capitals share Amman's concern about the narcotics trade. According to semi-official sources, 8% of the seized narcotics are intended for re-export outside Jordan. Saudi Arabia in April 2021 imposed a ban on the import of agricultural products from Lebanon after seizing huge quantities of narcotics hidden in agricultural exports. The Saudi Ministry of Interior demanded the Lebanese government provide the necessary guarantees to stop systematic smuggling operations.
Thus, the Jordanian state does not stand alone in facing the multiple dangers of narcotics and demanding that the Syrian army carry out its border duties. It is urgent that these arrangements be placed within the foundations of regional political de-escalation.
The Turkish turn towards Damascus is expected to push this political reduction forward. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed in mid-August that "advanced steps must be taken with Syria." He stressed that Turkey's commitment to the unity of Syria, referring to the Kurdish issue as one of the underlying conflicts between the two countries, adding that Turkey continues communication with Russia "at every step on Syria."
This communication runs counter to previous expectations that the Ukraine crisis will have negative repercussions on the status quo in Syria, where fears have dominated that the crisis will undermine the chances of a solution in Syria. However, the Ukraine crisis has perhaps provided additional space for negotiation and bargaining as the Turkish president's speech to reporters came on his return trip from Ukraine, where he attempted to stabilize the Ukrainian grain export agreement, support multilateral mediation efforts aimed at a ceasefire, and push for political negotiations that would end the crisis.
So far, the international parties involved in the Ukraine crisis have contained its repercussions on the Syrian crisis without sabotaging the existing balances in the Syrian one. This containment is in the interest of Jordan's border security, and it reassures fears of a strategic Russian withdrawal that would give way to the expansion of armed groups linked to smuggling gangs. A report published by Strategiecs in June 2022, "What is new in Jordan's war on drugs?," discussed this issue amidst four developments in Jordan's war on drugs.
In contrast to the strength factors, the dynamics of the Jordanian-Syrian relationship are plagued by some inhibitions that prevent the flow of bilateral interactions. First of which is that the past ten years depleted the capabilities of the Syrian state and caused accumulated destruction in administrative, economic, and societal structures that placed Syria third in the list of the most fragile countries out of the 179 included in the index.
While in this chronic turmoil, a "shadow economy" spread based on illegal activities such as the narcotics trade. Given the long years of the crisis and the inability of the Syrian government to play its economic role, a large segment of Syrians acclimatized to this new networks of illegal "traders" who will object to any change that harms their interests with all their political and violent power.
Thus, the challenge of confronting the illegal economy in Damascus carries with it several risks, especially since many geographical enclaves have become dependent on it.
Post-conflict studies warn of the risks inherent at that point. Even if the war on its broad regional and local scale ends, and even if an acceptable political solution is reached, the mini-conflicts would remain raging. Such conflicts are likely to escalate into a large-scale conflict that will devastate Jordanian-Syrian border understandings.
Second, Jordanian-Syrian relations tended towards being political. The first phone call in 10 years between King Abdullah and President Bashar occurred in October 2021. Relations between the two countries are still in the process of exploration, confidence-building, and resolving accumulated accusations. For instance, Damascus accused Amman of facilitating the transit of weapons and terrorists into Syrian territories while Amman viewed the evacuation of Syrian authorities in the south as a deliberate deed to create a pressing security situation on the Jordanian border.
Third, no regional consensus has been reached yet on key conflict issues, such as the Syrian crisis. Even if so, they remain fragile understandings that can be overturned, especially since the confidence-building phase requires time and reciprocal steps on the journey to confirming a true solution.
Fourth, the state of geostrategic competition on the Middle East, and the emergence of China and Russia as players, in a territory traditionally considered an arena of American influence.
Fifth, some international and regional capitals are wary of reaching a nuclear agreement because of the additional revenues it will have on the Iranian treasury. Those capitals believe it is necessary to take guarantees from Tehran that it will not use those revenues except for domestic ends inside Iran.
The next phase may witness a firm position by Washington and Tel Aviv in the face of Iranian influence. If a nuclear agreement is reached, it would not be understood as a green" light for any activities contradicting any state’s sovereignty. In case that an agreement is not reached, then the said position would prevent Tehran from escalating and pressuring the United States through its regional practices.
The simultaneous U.S. bombardment of sites in Syria in August 2022 underscored the United State’s firm position. It announced that boarding "infrastructure facilities related to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards" was under Biden's guidance; therefore, we should not be optimistic that the regional environment would stabilize by supporting the Jordanian-Syrian border understandings. The region has a complex path to build stable and non-confrontational relations.
What is said in this section may seem to contradict the previous section. This is not an error in the analysis. By virtue of reality, the dialectic position should be addressed from its bilateral, regional, international, and contradictory perspectives.
The prospects of Jordanian-Syrian relations are not limited to only the narcotics issue. In the Jordanian perspective, there are equally important objectives, such as the implementation of previous agreements related to sharing the waters of the joint Yarmouk River, in addition to not putting obstacles to refugees returning to Syria.
As for Syria, it views its relations with Jordan from the perspective of its political rehabilitation in the Arab and international environments as well as the benefits gained from a secure neighborhood that supports a comprehensive reconstruction process.
The two perspectives overlap within a general framework in which new Middle Eastern features are formed— equations redrawn, multilateral development projects activated, crises de-escalated, and external engagement reduced—in favor of directing more effort to address domestic challenges.
From this standpoint, direct and transparent communication between the two capitals can contribute to the stabilization of border understandings. It can also help prevent others from exploiting the current loopholes for material gain or subversive activities, whether they are in Syria or even in Jordan. Either way, Jordan's internal security crackdown on narcotics targeted what can be classified as an emerging infrastructure for the drug trade.
Policy Analysis Team