Jordan's drug war escalates after airborne explosives intercepted from Syria

Kingdom's military says little about what the TNT, which was being carried by a drone, was intended for

The Jordanian Mafraq governate on the border crossing Jaber in July 2018. AFP
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Ink was barely dry on an Arab declaration on anti-narcotics co-operation with Damascus when the Jordanian military announced this week that its forces had intercepted another drone from Syria.

Unlike previous seizures of airborne drugs, usually on small, commercial drones, the military said this one was carrying TNT explosives.

The announcement on Wednesday marked an escalation in a two-year drug war, pitting Jordan’s security forces against cartels based in areas under the control of President Bashar Al Assad in southern Syria.

Jordanian security analyst Saud Al Sharafat says the drone could have been on a trial run “to see if the Jordanian Armed Forces can control it” or intended for "certain people to commit terrorism”.

Unlike the rest of the Arab Levant, where lawlessness is rife, obtaining explosives in Jordan is difficult, even for legitimate use, such as in rock quarries, says Mr Al Sharafat.

By announcing the TNT seizure, he says Jordan has sent a “coded message” to regional powers that the border problem with Damascus is developing into a grave security threat to the kingdom.

Mr Al Sharafat, who heads the Shorufat Centre for Globalisation and Terrorism Studies in Amman, says the TNT signals the possible start of a “build-up of weapons infrastructure to destabilise Jordanian security”.

Iran-backed militia zone

Southern Syria became a main transit and manufacturing centre of narcotics after the area was recaptured by the Syrian army, the Lebanese Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militias in 2018.

Their consolidation of control was made possible by a deal between Washington, Israel and Moscow, which resulted in the withdrawal of western and Arab support from rebels fighting Mr Al Assad.

Jordan says the Syrian military and militias allied with Iran are overseeing the drug flows, particularly Captagon amphetamine pills, the most lucrative of an array of narcotics crossing the border.

In January 2020, the Jordanian military started toughening its response to the smuggling by reacting more swiftly and responding with more firepower, as the US and western allies sent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade Jordan’s border defences.

In the same year, and upon prodding from Moscow, Mr Al Assad's most powerful supporter, Jordan embarked on a rapprochement with Mr Al Assad, and supported the readmission of Damascus to the Arab League in May.

The Syrian President has been largely ostracised, after his security forces used force to suppress the peaceful 2011 revolt against his rule. The revolt became militarised by the end of that year and Syria has been in civil war since.

In a television interview last week, Mr Al Assad said the state has nothing to do with the drug-smuggling. He blamed the narcotics boom on neighbouring countries he did not name, which he said had sowed chaos in Syria.

His Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, on Tuesday met representatives of an Arab League committee – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon – formed in May to follow up on the normalisation.

An official declaration after the meeting said the five countries “look forward to continued and intensified” anti-narcotics co-operation with Damascus.

In Amman, the military provided no details about the drone, beyond saying that members of the engineers corps handled the situation.

A member of the Syrian opposition, who has contacts in Jordan, said at least 600 smugglers on the border with Jordan possess small, Chinese-made commercial drones of the type likely to have carried the TNT.

The 600 are linked to an amalgamation of Syrian security forces and loyalist militias in the border area, he said.

“Any of them could have loaded the drone with TNT, without any way to link the explosives to the regime,” he said.

“The regime's strategy is to put more pressure on Jordan. It is telling Jordan, 'we can do more to you, and not just narcotics'."

Updated: August 20, 2023, 8:16 AM