Syria Insight: Captagon drug trade sees tense stand-off with Jordan
In a sign of mounting concern about the inflow of captagon into Jordan - a highly addictive amphetamine - Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi recently spoke with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to find ways to tackle the trade, according to unofficial reports.
The fact that Syria and Iran's borders lie 800km apart underlines Tehran’s role in a vast regional drugs empire, which has seen captagon become the drug of choice at raves in the Gulf and an essential supplement for overworked truck drivers in the Mashriq.
Days after these high-profile discussions took place, Jordanian soldiers were engaged in some of its heaviest fighting with smugglers on the border with Syria in months - drug gangs armed with rocket launchers, landmines, and other heavy weaponry.
In Iraq and Syria, these groups have been linked to infiltration attempts involving drones and tablets concealed in tea, pomegranates, and infused in pottery.
"Last year saw a massive increase in drug hauls seized by Jordanian authorities, reflecting the economic crisis in Syria which has seen captagon become an essential source of revenue"
The 18 December clashes were not your average border infiltration by local Bedouin smugglers, who know the lay of the land, but ultimately a battle with a foreign-backed militia - one believed to be armed and supported by Iran and the Syrian regime.
Jordanian airstrikes on properties in the southern Syrian provinces of Suweida and Daraa - hotbeds for the captagon trade – followed, killing five civilians, including two children, according to local activists.
Battles between Jordanian troops and Syrian drug deals have continued since with several smugglers killed in an infiltration earlier in January leading to another round of retaliatory strikes by Jordan.
It is in these remote and semi-lawless areas of southern Syria where captagon is produced on an industrial scale, supposedly under the protection of the Syrian intelligence and Iran-linked militias, making them probably the best armed and organised criminal enterprise in the world.
Last year saw a massive increase in drug hauls seized by Jordanian authorities, reflecting the economic crisis in Syria which has seen captagon become an essential source of revenue to fund corrupt officials, militia fighters, and workers.
During the winter, drug gangs take advantage of the dense fog that often shrouds Syria's 370km border with Jordan to infiltrate the kingdom, leading to almost daily clashes with Jordanian guards.
But there have also been successes in anti-trafficking efforts with Jordanian forces seizing millions of tablets of captagon and kilos of crystal meth.
A key element in this network, according to US intelligence, is Maher al-Assad, the Syrian president’s brother, who commands the Fourth Armoured Division and a myriad of militias operating under its umbrella in Daraa and Suweida.
Maher also has connections to logistics and shipping companies in Latakia where millions of captagon pills, concealed among seemingly harmless cargo, have been shipped out, often involving some ingenious smuggling techniques.
"These militias rely on drug trafficking as a primary source of funding and have become more organised in their operations, indicating the presence of central management and direct supervision from higher authorities," Rayan Maarouf, editor-in-chief of As-Suwayda 24 monitoring group, told The New Arab.
While the drug trade has seen many in Suwieda and Daraa accumulate huge wealth, a lack of state support and dire living conditions has led to a spike in captagon and crystal meth addiction and growing numbers of murders and suicides in southern Syria, Maarouf said.
The spread of drugs and firearms in Jordan, and the involvement of Iranian militias in smuggling activities, have made the captagon trade in the kingdom an issue for even the US, which has provided Amman with $1 billion to bolster its border defences.
This paranoia is perhaps warranted given a Jordanian guard is believed to have used a Syrian-origin rifle to kill three US military trainers at the King Faisal Airbase in 2016.
Jordan insists it is a mere gateway for the drug, the ultimate destination of captagon being the wealthier cities of the Gulf region, but this line is being disputed by experts on the trade.
"Jordan has consistently said that it is not the market for the drugs but a passage, but that's not true," Tareq Al-Naimat, a Jordanian journalist and researcher, who works as an associate editor for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed told The New Arab.
"Statistics published by authorities point to a large increase in drug-related crime in Jordan over the past year. Around every half hour there is a crime related to drugs in Jordan and it has been noticed that there is widespread use of drugs in Jordan. Captagon is cheap and easily available for teenagers, students, and anyone with a little bit of money."
"Captagon is now a national security issue for the Jordanian government, which is willing to strike Iran-linked drug traders inside Syria"
Captagon is now a national security issue for the Jordanian government, which is willing to strike Iran-linked drug traders inside Syria, reflecting worries about the social impact of the drug in the kingdom.
"Now the Jordanian drug gangs have more financial resources, there is more widespread use of drugs, which tells us that they have many local networks. There are even reports that captagon and hashish are easily available in the countryside," said Al-Naimat, an occurrence in deeply conservative areas of Jordan that was almost unseen before.
This spike in captagon coincided with Jordan's march toward normalisation with the Syrian regime, with King Abdullah and President Assad speaking by phone in 2021 for the first time since 2011. The two countries had already re-opened their borders in 2018 and Jordan is believed to have played a key role in seeing Syria rejoin the Arab League last year.
The fact that regional reintegration was a key aim of the Syrian regime hints that captagon is either a vital source of revenue for corrupt officials or the production and trade of the drug are well outside the state's control.
The latter would indicate heavy Iranian involvement in the enterprise, which is suffering from an economic crisis due to US sanctions and mismanagement.
Jordan is also frustrated that its efforts of outreach to the Syrian regime have come to nothing, with drugs and weapons flowing into the kingdom at an unprecedented rate. While this might not be enough to threaten diplomatic ties with Damascus it has certainly stymied hopes in Amman of better relations.
Working group talks between Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi officials took place in the summer on the drugs trade but no real results or follow-up meetings materialised, said Caroline Rose, director of the Captagon Project at the New Lines Institute and adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
"I think it's clear that we saw the Jordanian government slow down and pump the brakes on normalisation this past summer, so it seems they are becoming more frustrated with the lack of progress on this issue," said Rose.
"It is also notable that Jordan is blaming Iran-backed organisations, operating in Syria's southern provinces, for the smuggling of captagon and with the weapons seized by Jordan this is a sign the militias are operating in that capacity. Combined with the illicit flows of captagon, then this is a message from Iran that they are present and looking to expand their influence in the region."
"I think it's clear that we saw the Jordanian government slow down and pump the brakes on normalisation this past summer, so it seems they are becoming more frustrated with the lack of progress on this issue"
Due to the regional security threat posed by the captagon trade, the US could play a bigger role in training Jordanian forces and provide help with securing the Jordan-Syria border.
The increasingly violent tactics of drug smugglers, and their connections to foreign states, might also force Amman to take a tougher response to infiltration attempts with further airstrikes on Syria.
"I think the Jordanians will loosen their rules of engagement with drug smugglers and toughen its stance towards smuggling," said Rose.
"I do not think that the Jordanians are going to perceive normalisation as a pathway for cracking down on the captagon trade, and I don't necessarily think they're going to pursue direct dialogue with the Syrian government, because they tried this in the past and it ultimately failed."
Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin