Jordan-Syria ties tested by shifting regional sands and murky war on Captagon

Security officials met last month, with Jordan expecting Syrian military to curb cross-border narcotics flows

The narcotics corridor of the Lajat in southern Syria, which leads to Jordan. The rugged area consists of volcanic rock. Photo: Wikipedia
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Syrian refugee Rateb Hasan tried for years to obtain Jordanian approval for his mother-in-law to visit, until restrictions on the entry of Syrians into the kingdom were eased three months ago.

Security clearance for Syrian visitors to Jordan now happens almost routinely, travel agents say, after Damascus was readmitted to the Arab League in May.

“It cost a fortune but she is with us now,” says Mr Hasan, who works odd jobs on farms on the outskirts of Amman.

He paid $300 to a travel agency in Amman, which obtained on his mother-in-law’s behalf the security clearance, and transported her on a bus across the border.

The easing of cross border travel is a culmination of an Arab rapprochement with President Bashar Al Assad.

Jordan, which supported the regional accommodation with Mr Al Assad, made it clear that a core of the new relationship with Damascus is to resume legal flows of goods and people, regardless of the political differences between the two sides.

The kingdom, however, is pursuing what officials call a step-for-step approach to solving problems emanating from Syria. It wants to see co-operation from Damascus before it can support Mr Assad in his wider goal of lifting western sanctions and obtaining funding for reconstruction projects in government-controlled areas.

Foremost among Jordanian concerns is the smuggling of narcotics to the kingdom from areas in southern Syria under the control of Syrian security forces and allied militias supported by Iran.

This position has made Jordan a barometer of the new Arab approach to dealing with Mr Al Assad.

So when senior Jordanian and Syrian security officials met in Amman last month to discuss curbing the narcotics flows, mainly the amphetamine known as Captagon, observers were watching for any signs of a breakthrough.

“The Jordanians have been tight lipped. They know that they could end up being played up by Damascus”, says a western diplomat in Amman.

His country is one of several allies who have been helping the Jordanian military seal the border with Syria and install reconnaissance equipment along it.

No signs have emerged of moves in Syria against the main sponsors of the smuggling, he says.

Among the military units on the Syrian side of the border is the Fourth Division, a Praetorian Guard-style unit led by Maher Al Assad, the President's younger brother, and pro-Iranian militias supervised by Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that controls a large bloc in parliament in Beirut.

But sources in the Syrian opposition to Mr Al Assad, who have been monitoring the Syrian side of border, say some action was taken against smaller players in the narcotics business over the last month.

Military Intelligence arrested Zaid Al Dunhah, a drug trafficker, at a roadblock near Lajat, an area of volcanic rock that is a main conduit of drugs to Jordan.

But he was released after a commander in the loyalist Liwa Al Quds militia intervened on his behalf.

In areas around Nasib, the main border crossing with Jordan, a Russian-supported militia, known as the 8th Brigade, has been clashing sporadically with smugglers. In other areas, the Syrian military has marked out “exclusionary corridors” to prevent people from reaching the Jordanian side, but it seems that they have been only sporadically enforced.

Smuggling in winter gloom

One of the sources says that it is difficult to gauge the effects of these measures.

This is because large-scale trafficking operations often take place in sandstorms or fog, and in the border region, summer weather is typically clearer with good visibility for security forces.

Some operatives were also scared off by a reported Jordanian air strike that killed a drug dealer and several of his children at his home near the border in May.

The source said the regime could be co-operating in the talks on the assumption that it will ultimately be rewarded by money from Jordan's Gulf allies, to compensate for the revenue lost from the narcotics.

“It is an unrealistic expectation,” says the source, who is in Amman. “The Arabs know that if money is paid, it will go to Iran, which wants compensation for having spent so much money on the regime.”

Regional rapprochement with Mr Al Assad was accelerated after a Chinese brokered deal in April for a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Tehran has sent officers and proxy militias to Syria, as well as billions of dollars' worth of oil, to keep Mr Assad in power since the Syrian revolt against his rule militarised in late 2011, and wants him to re-emerge as an actor in the region.

Wael Alwan, a head of information at the Jusoor information centre in Istanbul, says the Jordan-Syrian security talks are ultimately linked to a fluid geopolitical situation in the region.

He says the Saudi accommodation with Iran, and in turn with Mr Al Assad, is linked to Saudi misgivings about US reliability as an ally. China has also been supporting more regional collaboration with Iran, which has in turn benefited Mr Al Assad.

But in the past several weeks there has been a US diplomatic push to reassure Saudi Arabia and boost US security guarantees to Riyadh. Mr Alwan says domestic troubles in Russia, after an attempted insurrection against President Vladimir Putin in June, has also weakened Russia's sway.

He expects the Arab rapprochement with Mr Al Assad to “stumble” as a result, undermining the Jordanian-Syrian talks.

“The Syrian regime has achieved a symbolic victory, but it does not consider it enough because it wants the Arab countries to cure the economic collapse it is suffering,” Mr Alwan explains.

“Jordan wants a real response from the regime and not just protocol talks.”

Updated: August 08, 2023, 7:15 AM