Jordan and Syria discuss border security amid Gaza war tensions

Arab concerns grow over pro-Iranian groups trying to set up clandestine presence in kingdom

Part of the border between Jordan and Syria. Drugs and weapons are being smuggled across the frontier. AFP
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The foreign ministers of Jordan and Syria have discussed border security at an Arab League meeting in Bahrain, official media said on Tuesday, after threats from groups supported by Iran to infiltrate the kingdom.

After Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi met his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad, an official Jordanian statement said: “They went over the outcome of contacts ... between the two countries to stop smuggling operations and deflect their danger.”

The two men met on the sidelines of a conference in Manama convened to prepare for an Arab summit on Thursday.

For the past six years, border areas controlled by the Syrian military and pro-Iranian militias have been a main conduit of smuggling drugs, and increasingly weapons, into Jordan.

The two allies have denied Jordanian accusations of financing the flow of illicit items. Amman has not provided information on who receives the contraband on the Jordanian side of the border.

But in the second half of last year, Jordanian authorities increased operations in tribal areas near the border against unidentified arms and drug dealers.

The New York Times last month reported Iran has been overseeing weapon-smuggling routes through Jordan and other countries to the occupied West Bank, an issue that has become more sensitive since the war in Gaza broke out on October 7.

Iran has been expanding its influence in Syria since the 2011 revolt against the Alawite-dominated ruling elite, which threatened to undermine the foothold of Shiite Iran in Syria. By the end of the year, the revolt had transformed into civil war, with rural Sunnis comprising its armed core.

But the Russian intervention in 2015, together with a cluster of militias formed by Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, helped restore large parts of Syria to President Bashar Al Assad's regime.

Those militias have also attacked US forces in Syria, and in January killed three US soldiers at a border base in Jordan.

In Ramallah, a Palestinian security official said that since October 7, Israel has been increasingly mounting operations against Iran-backed armed groups in West Bank camps and villages.

Some of these groups received limited amounts of smuggled weapons through Jordan, although they have other supply options, he added.

“They have not engaged in any serious activity against Israel but they have provided the excuse for Israel for its devastating [West Bank] incursions,” the official told The National.

Jordan is dependent on the US for aid and for security. Washington and other western allies have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into helping fortify the kingdom’s 360km, mostly desert border with Syria, western security officials said.

The kingdom's position as a US ally was highlighted last month when the Jordanian air force helped intercept barrages of drones and missiles fired by Iran at Israel in rare, direct hostilities between the two countries.

A diplomat in Amman said that since October 7, decision-makers in Jordan have been raising the possibility that Iran might try to build a presence in the kingdom.

“It is in Iran’s interest to build a ring of instability around Israel,” he said. "I am not sure it has the tools to do that in Jordan."

Countering the drug trade initially figured prominently in Jordan's support for an Arab rapprochement with Mr Assad last year. The warming of relations also coincided with a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It has resulted in the restoration of Damascus to the Arab League and the Syrian President attending the last Arab League Summit in Riyadh a year ago.

Waiel Olwan, senior researcher at the Jusoor Centre for Studies in Istanbul, said weapons have overtaken drugs as Jordan’s primary problem with Damascus.

“The weapons could go to the West Bank, and more worryingly to sleeper cells that Iran could attempt to form in Jordan,” Mr Olwan said.

The overall normalisation with Damascus has not progressed significantly, partly due to this issue, he said.

"On the field, it is Iran that holds the decision, not the Syrian regime,” he said.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 3:08 PM