Captagon Cartels: Is Jordan winning its war on drugs?

Captagon Cartels: Is Jordan winning its war on drugs?
Explainer: What are Jordan's options to stop acting as a corridor for the Captagon drug cartels across the unstable border with Syria?
5 min read
15 September, 2023
Drug trafficking from Syria into Jordan is becoming "organised" with smugglers stepping up operations and using sophisticated equipment including drones [Khalil Mazrawwi, Afp via GETTY]

Jordan is waging its own version of the war on drugs, targetting captagon smuggling and associated violent gangs along the border with Syria. It routinely intercepts shipments of the addictive amphetamine headed into its markets and the Arabian Gulf further afield, including via cargo drones.

Jordan has even carried out air raids into southern Syria, targeting key figures in the Syrian Captagon Cartel. However, its interventions have proven ineffective, and its options without regional and international support remain limited.

The Syrian regime is widely believed to provide facilities for smuggling it to Gulf markets through Jordan, which is no longer just a corridor but a market unto itself.

According to official figures, Jordan witnessed a drug-related crime every 28 minutes in 2022, and that year recorded an increase in drug crimes by 8 percent compared to 2021. Drug crimes reached 5,300 in 2022 alone in a country whose population does not exceed 11 million. Many Jordanians point out the spread of drugs in cities and villages and the ease of obtaining Captagon pills due to their low price compared to other drugs. 

Can normalisation with Assad help?

Jordan was one of the most enthusiastic Arab countries about the return of official relations with the Syrian regime for security and economic reasons, given that Jordan shares a border with Syria about 375 kilometres long, representing a significant security challenge.

Jordan presented its diplomatic initiative and was able, through its good relationship with the administration of US President Biden, to obtain waivers related to the Caesar Act sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime and to facilitate the supply of electricity to Lebanon through Syria, although that deal is still being worked out.

Commercial crossings on the Syrian border also returned to work, and officials in Jordan and Syria exchanged official visits after years of interruption, coinciding with the rapprochement between Syria and several Arab countries, which culminated in Syria's return to its permanent seat in the Arab League last May. 

Nevertheless, Jordanian and Arab efforts failed to change the behaviour of the Syrian regime, especially in combating drugs. Smuggling operations continued intensively, and several Jordanian soldiers were killed during their confrontations with drug traffickers, who had advanced logistical means of drones and modern vehicles. In many cases, the smugglers were accompanied by an armed group that provided them with protection.

In his recent television interview, Bashar al-Assad, the head of the Syrian regime, did not deny his alleged connection to the drug trade, nor did he express any absolute seriousness in addressing the drug problem during the interview. 

Jordan subsequently changed its policy after Amman hoped that the understanding of the Assad regime would help contain the drug problem. The Jordanian army conducted several air strikes deep into Syria, targeting prominent drug dealers, especially in southern Syria. The military also changed the Rules of engagement on the Jordanian border. Army soldiers no longer hesitate to shoot with intent to kill any smuggler trying to cross the border.

However, the Syrian Captagon cartels, whose revenues are in the billions of dollars, are too resourceful and entrenched to be rooted out by cross-border raids

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No military solution

Undoubtedly, the security and military option does not constitute a radical solution to a now global drug problem because drugs are no longer limited to mere unprofessional smugglers but instead have turned into an institution with a hierarchical system and armed militias. More importantly, drugs have become profitable for the Syrian regime, whose financial resources have vanished. It has become more dependent on the billions it earns from drug trafficking and sponsorship. Jordan must combine its security and political efforts at the same time.

Politically, Jordan can form a regional and international consensus towards establishing a collective effort to combat drugs, especially since the Gulf states are concerned about the drug trade and the deteriorating situation in Syria. In addition, the role of Iranian-backed militias in the drug industry reinforces the conviction that Iranian proxies in the region benefit financially from that trade, which raises international concerns, especially from the United States, which recently developed the Captagon Act, to give the US government the power to sanction individuals involved in the trade.

The regional atmosphere may be conducive to an anti-drug initiative. Jordan, which enjoys stable relations with Moscow and excellent relations with the US administration, could play a pivotal role in forming an initiative and alliance. 

The challenges facing this initiative are many, and there are doubts about the Syrian regime's ability and influence in the areas it controls, given that Iran enjoys enormous influence in Syria through the militias it has trained and armed and which are spread densely in southern Syria near the Jordanian border.

Russia has political influence since its military intervention in Syria in 2015. This casts doubt on whether reaching an agreement with the Syrian regime alone on specific security issues is sufficient to provide guarantees. 

Jordan may therefore have to move along parallel paths and negotiate with the Syrian regime and its international sponsors. Jordan has previous experience with this during its understanding with Moscow about the Iranian militias moving away from its northern borders and the agreement on the entry of regime forces and Russian military police into Daraa in 2018.

The choices are not easy for Jordan, and the security equation in Syria is closely linked to the political situation. Amid the Syrian regime's intransigence and failure to make concessions to reach a political solution and national reconciliation. Given the international meddling in Syria and the presence of many players, Jordan has no choice but to try to engage them while keeping its eyes open on its unstable northern border.