What is new in Jordan's war on drugs?

This paper addresses challenges on Jordan's northern borders, especially in light of talk of a Russian withdrawal, which may strengthen the control of Iranian-backed groups responsible for cross-border drug smuggling.

  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Jun 22, 2022

The statements of His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein in his interview with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in the United States still receive interactions on the ground. His Majesty warned of a possible escalation of problems on the Jordanian-Syrian borders as a result of the “Iranians and their proxies” filling the vacuum created by the decline in the Russian presence in southern Syria .

A few days after these statements, the Jordanian Armed Forces announced a "qualitative operation" for the Eastern Military District, which resulted in the killing of 4 drug smugglers. It confirmed in a statement that "it will strike with an iron fist and will deal with force and firmness with any infiltration or smuggling attempt."

Sources reported that that the Royal Jordanian Air Force carried out air strikes in Syria at midnight on May 24, 2022 at the same time with what was circulated regarding the "closure of Jordanian airspace", which was denied by the Civil Aviation Regulatory Authority, which confirmed that what had been done was "suspending the movement of taking-off and landing in the vicinity of Queen Alia International Airport for a period of 40 minutes, in order to preserve the safety and security of civil aviation."

It may seem that nothing new has occurred in the issue of fighting drugs, since the Syrian-Jordanian border has been considered a regional hub for the export of drugs for years. However, at this time, there are developments that must be highlighted, namely:

First: the repositioning of Russian forces

In the aforementioned interview, His Majesty King Abdullah II affirmed, "the Russian presence in southern Syria was a source of calm in Syria," noting "this vacuum will now be filled by the Iranians and their proxies. Unfortunately, we have a possible escalation of the problems on our borders.”

These statements come at a time when several reports suggest that Russia has withdrawn part of its forces stationed in southern Syria to participate in military operations in Ukraine. Media outlets quoted sources in the Pentagon that thousands of Russian infantry, air force and engineering units operating in Syria had withdrew, without confirmation or denial on the part of the Russian authorities. However, parties close to Moscow consider the talk about the withdrawal as an attempt to suggest that Russia is facing difficulties in its military operations in Ukraine, which requires military reinforcements from its forces in Syria, and it falls under "psychological warfare.”.

Realistically, it is unimaginable for Russia to implement a strategic withdrawal from Syria, which may lose its effective weight in the course of events in the Middle East, after the Russian treasury spent about 4 million dollars a day according to estimates published by IHS in October 2015, in addition to its loss of the great logistical and geopolitical importance of its presence in the warm Mediterranean waters.

In addition, Russia's intention to conduct a large-scale withdrawal from Syria, albeit temporarily and may be compensated later, is improbable in light of Ankara's decision to close its airspace to the crossing of Russian planes loaded with equipment heading towards Syria, especially since the alternative routes available are further, in addition to the fact that Ankara has also prevented the warships of the countries bordering and not bordering the Black Sea from crossing the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. All of this restricts the passage of Russian warships leaving from Syria through the Bosphorus strait.


Accordingly, the Russian repositioning should be carefully evaluated, since the number of Russian forces deployed in Syria is limited and cannot change the field data in Ukraine, in which estimates indicate the participation of more than 100,000 Russian soldiers.

Consequently, the talk about a complete Russian withdrawal is inaccurate until now. What is happening is a repositioning for political motives in the first place related to the reshuffling of cards on the Syrian arena to put pressure on Western countries, with the aim of softening their sanctions imposed on the Russian economy, and of influencing the overall political and security situation in The Middle East, which is full of vital American interests

As for Jordan, its borders with Syria are likely to witness tension in the future, although most of the Russian field changes took place in the east, where the Syrian-Iraqi borders are, and not in the south.

Some reports indicated that organizations such as Al-Nujaba and the Iraqi Hezbollah tried immediately to spread and fill the Russian vacuum. Consequently, there is a high risk of a convergence of interests between cross-border drug gangs in southern Syria with armed factions and groups operating in that region.

This means that the gap left by the Russian repositioning will be one of the files that are worsening unless Amman reaches understandings with Moscow that restore things to the way they were before, or that it spares Jordan's national security the consequences of recent Russian measures

Second: A crisis in Russian-Israeli relations

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Tel Aviv of supporting what it calls the "neo-Nazi regime" in Ukraine. This accusation was embodied in the Russian Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, about the participation of "Israelis" in the fighting in extremist Ukrainian units.

The Russian-Israeli contest was of a historical character when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had Jewish roots and that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was of a Jewish religion, which angered Israeli officials who considered these statements a disregard for the Holocaust, including President Israeli Minister Naftali Bennett, who condemned the use of the Holocaust as a "political tool."

In fact, over the past years, neither Russian planes nor their air defense systems have intercepted any of the Israeli planes and missiles directed at Iranian targets in Syria, in what seemed to be an implicit Russian-Israeli agreement to get Iran out of the Syrian scene, which may be subjected to a real test today.

The Israeli channel (13) revealed, that a surface-to-air missile with S300 batteries was launched towards Israeli planes that were carrying out an air strike on targets in Syria in May 2022. The “Israel Hayom” newspaper reported that a Russian submarine fired the missiles at the Israeli planes,

adding, "Israel will have to wait for the upcoming attacks in Syria to understand whether this is really the direction, and a Russian signal that could violate Israel's air freedom in Syria, or whether it is an exceptional and one-off case." 

Not to mention the fears arising from Moscow's turning a blind eye to the spread of Iranian-backed armed groups near the Golan in southern Syria, which will increase the security burdens on Jordan, even if Moscow does not intentionally cause security troubles targeting Jordanian interests.

Realistic experience has proven that the Iranian-backed armed groups are good at seizing time to establish themselves and intensify their presence. They take advantage of half-opportunities to achieve gains on the ground, and thus will use the Russian-Israeli rift to serve their goals related to control and drug smuggling in southern Syria.

And because Syria occupies a strategic importance in the Russian calculations, as stated previously, Moscow may aim with its recent moves to create a pressure threat on Israel and the entire Middle East, and not to focus its war effort towards Ukraine at the expense of its military presence in Syria.

Third: The nuclear negotiations falter

For more than a decade, the Iranian nuclear file has been present on the Middle East agenda. Whenever its priority declines, it returns to the fore again. At this stage, "stalled" negotiations are taking place, the two sides of which are trying to strengthen their negotiating position, by using the available pressure cards on the various interacting parties.

Regional influence is one of the cards used by Tehran. As long as the stalemate continues in the Vienna negotiations, it is expected that more of this paper will be activated, as Tehran imagines that the Western negotiator, particularly Washington, will be inclined to adopt a policy of appeasement, in order to avoid escalation in light of the preoccupation with the Ukrainian crisis, which motivates it to activate its affiliated groups in several regions, especially in Syria, which concerns Jordan's national security more than others.

As a result of the stalled negotiations is the high level of Israeli strategic concern, in terms of Iran’s pressure on the Vienna parties and the International Atomic Energy Agency through the technical paper by accelerating its nuclear program. Thid concern is evidenced by Israel’s coordination with Washington and countries in the region to formulate an integrated security system to deal with Iranian threats.

In addition, Israel has been accused of a number of attacks on Iranian territory, the most recent of which was the killing of Revolutionary Guards Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khadaei, east of Tehran in May 2022. The Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Major General Hossein Salami, accused Israeli elements of his assassination.

In the same context, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi said that "revenge for Khodaei's blood is inevitable," while observers do not rule out that Tehran is planning a retaliatory operation similar to what it announced of a precision missile strike targeting a compound in the city of Erbil, which it considers an Israeli security facility, especially that Israel is accused of carrying out several operations inside Iran, which requires resetting the deterrence equation in order to preserve its prestige linked to internal policies and its image in front of the Western negotiator.

All of this is directly related to the uncertainty on the Syrian-Jordanian border, where Israel's northern front intersects with the Iranian-backed armed groups. In view of Russia's preoccupation with the Ukrainian crisis, and the decline in the Russian-Iranian competition in Syria; it is likely that the Iranian presence in Syria will expand.

Amman is well aware of these developments, and responded to them politically through the royal statement for the first time in an interview with the Hoover Institution, about the danger Iran and its affiliated groups in southern Syria pose to Jordanian security. This was followed by a statement by the Director of Military Information, Colonel Mustafa Al-Hiyari, about the existence of "dangerous Iranian organizations conspiring and targeting Jordanian national security", in a television interview about drug smuggling from southern Syria towards the Kingdom.


Therefore, Tehran-Tel Aviv interactions are complicated, which exacerbates the existing challenges on the Syrian-Jordanian borders, bearing in mind that Jordan is a strategic ally of the United States, and the two countries have common interests, in addition to the effectiveness of Jordanian foreign policy in issues and files in the region, especially in both Syria and Iraq, which means that Jordan is not far from any new tensions that may arise in the next stage.

Fourth: The Jordanian role in the region

There is no doubt that Jordan's foreign policy interactions are witnessing great effectiveness, towards regional capitals, especially after the US President, Joe Biden, took office, which gives Jordanian diplomacy a greater margin of maneuvering and provides an early security response in the face of escalating threats.  

It was remarkable that the last royal visit to the United States included military and political discussions, where His Majesty King Abdullah II met with military leaders in the US Special Forces and the US Central Command "CENTCOM" responsible for the Middle East. His Majesty also met with congressional committees concerned with military and defense issues. Even the television interview was conducted with a military program presented by a retired general.

In conjunction with this visit, the level of statements about the “drug war” and the Iranian-backed armed groups, which are carrying out systematic and organized work on the Syrian-Jordanian borders, increased. This is the first time that official statements in Jordan accuse armed groups affiliated with Iran of being responsible for smuggling operations across the Syrian south.

It is noted that more than one Jordanian statement has been issued recently about the armed forces' combating drug smuggling on behalf of the countries of the region and the world, which requires supporting the Jordanian efforts, as stated in the aforementioned interview with Al-Hiyari.

Accordingly; Jordan is investing politically in this duty it is doing to deter and put an end to drug smuggling chains, thus avoiding the Jordanian environment and the surrounding countries this danger that targets youth groups who suffer from emptiness and unemployment, and it can afford some prohibited substances such as Captagon and Tramadol, which are described as " heroin of the poor”.

In the face of Arab-Iranian communication exploring the future of relations, Oman finds itself in a situation that requires controlling the nature of its interaction with Tehran. While the official discourse warns of the danger of Iranian-backed armed groups; in response to the question of how to deal with Iran, His Majesty referred to the Arab countries involved in exploratory talks with it, saying, "Of course, we want everyone to be part of a new start for the Middle East, but we have security challenges."

It can be concluded that Jordan deals with Tehran according to a “combination” that mixes collision with its destabilizing manifestations of regional stability, especially drug smuggling on one hand, and being a part that it is obliged to  deal with in terms of building understandings on some issues on the other hand. For example, tripartite development partnership projects (Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq), and the project to export electricity to Lebanon cannot be realized in case of strong Iranian opposition.

The meetings of the supervisory committee concerned with following up the implementation of the prisoner exchange agreement between representatives of the Yemeni government and the Ansar Allah al-Houthi group are hosted in the Jordanian capital, Amman, which is an example of Jordan’s ability to engage and influence one of the files considered important to Tehran, and in a way that could play a role in the near future to crystallize a Jordanian-Iranian understanding, directly or indirectly, that reduces the escalation on the Syrian-Jordanian border.


All of this revolves around the Jordanian role in combating drug smuggling, as the drug war became declared in May 2022. It may be an extension of the war on terrorism in which the Kingdom played a role that earned it respect and appreciation at the regional and international levels.

Increase readiness and combat vigilance

The Jordanian Armed Forces and the relevant security services are preparing for various scenarios on the northern borders, and are considering the worst scenarios that amount to a strategic Russian withdrawal followed by the spread of armed groups, cross-border drug smuggling gangs and terrorist groups.

The danger lies in the exacerbation of threats and their transfer to a more complex level, through the adoption of armed groups, arms smuggling groups and terrorists for an agenda aimed at destabilizing Jordan. So far, the armed forces have not announced the existence of a systematic organized work for this type of smuggling, similar to drugs.

However, from time to time it is announced that quantities of weapons have been seized, the last of which was announced in late May 2022, when one of the fronts of the northern military region clashed with a group that tried to smuggle a quantity of weapons and ammunition and arrested some of its members.

According to the pictures attached to the statement of the armed forces, it is noted that there are automatic weapons, "Pump Action" rifles and high-impact ammunition compared to those popular on the black market for arms trade in Jordan.

Such weapons represent a multi-dimensional threat, as they can be a tool for carrying out a terrorist attack, in addition to being a favorite weapon for criminal groups inside Jordan. Flooding the country with these types of weapons will increase the boldness of violating the law and committing the felony of murder.

Consequently, Jordan may find itself facing a reality that requires it to impose a kind of buffer zone by clearing the borders of smuggling traffickers (drugs, automatic weapons, drones, and terrorists) and armed groups backed by a political decision to target Jordan.

In summary, Jordan is facing more than the drug war, because the international drug cartels have goals limited to the financial dimension, while what is happening on the northern border front transcends the financial dimensions to reach the societal and political ones.

With regard to the Russian withdrawal whose level has not been agreed on, this paper reaffirms that it will not be strategic, and the withdrawal of Russian forces that has been and will be is not directed against Jordanian interests, because Jordanian-Russian relations are dominated by understanding and respect for sovereign decisions.

Thus, Jordanian diplomacy can restore understanding with Moscow, to establish the minimum understandings necessary to keep the border situation under control, as Moscow must be persuaded to separate vital Jordanian interests from its efforts to pressure American interests and its dispute with Tel Aviv.

The safest factor in the war against drugs remains strengthening the home front by increasing local security activity and changing laws that are not sufficiently deterrent with regard to drug smuggling. The law amending the Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Law published in the Official Gazette in September 2021 expanded on granting an exemption from the penalty and recording security restrictions against “everyone who used, entered, brought, escaped, imported, exported, possessed, acquired, bought, received, transported, produced, manufactured, stored or planted” any of the prohibited narcotic substances for the first time. This is a legal loophole that motivates the weak-willed to enter the supply and manufacturing chains of these substances, although the original law is that exempting those who use drugs for the first-time.


Policy Analysis Team