Jordanian officials had announced in January 2022 a change in the existing rules of engagement along the Syrian-Jordanian border in an attempt to deter threats risking Jordanian national security. Colonel Hiyari said that Jordan’s armed forces are facing a drug war along the country’s north-eastern border and in the last three years smuggling operations have doubled. He explained that “Jordan’s border is seeing daily smuggling operations, which consist of three to four groups of 10 to 20 people each: a reconnaissance group, a group working to distract the armed forces, and another waiting for the right opportunity to smuggle contraband.” Jordanian officials have also expressed their dissatisfaction over the lack of cooperation and the inadequate efforts to clamp down on drug trafficking by Syrian authorities despite informing them over the alarming spike in recent months. The head of Jordan’s border security Brigadier General Ahmad Khleifat said, “Our demands were always that forces do their job but we have not felt so far we have a real partner in protecting the borders.”
Jordan has stepped up its efforts to counter this smuggling threat and has seized more than 20 million tablets of Captagon since January 2022. This figure reflects a huge spike compared to the total seizure of 14 million tablets in 2021. Captagon is a highly addictive drug composed of fenethylline and it is illegal in several countries. Moreover, it is often known as the poor man’s cocaine. Some reports indicate that the trade in Captagon touched $5 billion in 2021, reflecting the strong health and security risks for the countries in the Middle East. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi recently opined during a session at the World Economic Forum that a political solution is vital in Syria in order to address regional challenges. He specifically mentioned the issue of drug smuggling, “the first stop of drugs is Jordan. If they make it to Jordan, Saudi Arabia is next… and the same thing from Saudi Arabia, it will go to Kuwait, to Iraq to elsewhere. We need to look at that.”
There are several reasons for the increase in illegal drug smuggling in the region. Firstly, reports suggest that amid the war and consequently the collapse of the economy, Lebanon and Syria have turned into narco-states. In Lebanon, Captagon production units are in Hezbollah-controlled areas like the Beqaa Valley. Drug smuggling groups in Lebanon and Syria are operating with the full support of Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Secondly, the chemical industry in Syria has also taken a hit amid the worsening economic conditions in Syria, resulting in the illegal drug trade attracting unemployed and desperate Syrian chemists. Thirdly, US sanctions on Iran have cut the latter’s financial support to its militias in the region and to compensate for this shortfall, militias like Hezbollah have increased their drug smuggling operations with the support of the Syrian regime to purchase weapons, give pay-outs and employ fighters. Jordanian officials recently said that four smugglers were killed by the armed forces amid a confrontation along the border and nearly 40 smugglers have been killed and hundreds injured since the beginning of 2022. Most of them were nomads employed by Iranian-backed groups for drug smuggling operations. As poverty and unemployment rises in war-torn countries, Iranian-backed militias exploit the vulnerabilities of people and employ them in their operations.
The Captagon pills produced in Lebanon and Syria are smuggled by crossing land borders into Saudi Arabia and Jordan and by sea to other countries in the Gulf and to Europe. Yemen’s Deputy Minister of Legal Affairs and Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez in a statement said that Iran’s Quds Force had smuggled drugs to the Houthis who had then diverted them to other neighbouring countries.
Drug smuggling poses a severe challenge to regional countries and strict action is needed by regional and international countries against Iranian-backed groups that are continuously in one way or another threatening regional security. There is no doubt that regional coordination is needed to tackle and deter the smuggling of drugs, particularly against the backdrop of Iranian-backed groups escalating their efforts to smuggle drugs in larger quantities amid the cash crunch and the deflection of international attention away from the Middle East and toward the Ukrainian theatre.