May 9, 2023 | Policy Brief

Jordan Carries Out Rare Strike in Syria Against the Assad-Backed Narco-Trade

May 9, 2023 | Policy Brief

Jordan Carries Out Rare Strike in Syria Against the Assad-Backed Narco-Trade

Jordan carried out airstrikes in southern Syria on Monday morning targeting a prominent drug lord and a narcotics factory in nearby Daraa province. Jordanian airstrikes in Syria are extremely rare and underscore the souring effect of the Syrian narco-trade on Jordan-Syria relations.

Monday’s strikes come a day after the Arab League voted to readmit Syria, ending Damascus’ 12-year suspension, and a week after Syria pledged to curb drug trafficking across its borders at a meeting of its foreign minister with his counterparts from Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

The strikes also put teeth behind Amman’s recent threats to act against the narco-trade in Syria. Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi told CNN last week that Jordan is “not taking the threat of drug smuggling lightly” and that Amman is prepared to “do what it takes to counter that threat, including taking military action inside Syria to eliminate this extremely dangerous threat.”

The first strike on Monday hit the home of narcotics kingpin Merhi al-Ramthan in the Syrian village of Shuab in Sweida province near the Jordanian border. The strike allegedly killed Ramthan, his wife, and six children. Ramthan is reportedly close with Hezbollah and with militias linked to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Ramthan also facilitates smuggling operations at the Syrian-Jordanian border; Jordanian authorities sentenced him to death in absentia several times for drug trafficking.

A second strike on Monday reportedly hit an empty Iran-backed drug facility in Daraa province previously used as a meeting point for Hezbollah-backed smugglers.

Jordanian state media reported the airstrikes but did not take responsibility. At a press conference on Monday, Safadi said, “Whenever we take any steps to protect our national security and facing any threats towards it, we announce it at the appropriate time.” He maintained, “When it comes to the case of drugs, as we said before, the surge in drug smuggling is a huge threat to the kingdom, the region, and the world.”

Monday’s strikes are a rare example of Jordanian action inside Syria against the Assad-backed narcotics trade, especially the trafficking of Captagon, an amphetamine-like drug. The Captagon trade, whose estimated retail value is over $5.7 billion per year, poses a serious border security challenge for Jordan. Jordanian authorities regularly thwart overland smuggling operations through the kingdom; last week, Jordanian forces foiled an attempt to smuggle 133,000 Captagon pills from Syria into Jordan hours before the Arab ministers convened in Amman.

In March, Jordan’s King Abdullah II asked U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for help stemming the flow of drugs across Jordan’s borders. But U.S. officials are instead advising Arab governments to bargain with the Syrian regime. In March, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf encouraged our “friends and partners” to “get something in return” for reengaging Assad, specifically a commitment to curtail regime-controlled narcotrafficking.

The Biden administration’s hopes are misplaced. The narcotics industry is a financial lifeline for Bashar al-Assad, whose scorched-earth offensives have left the Syrian economy in ruins. Assad might temporarily curtail the drug trade to secure concessions from his neighbors, but business would likely return rapidly to normal — only for Assad to offer another reduction in exchange for further concessions.

The Biden administration should stop encouraging normalization and promote a new policy: there should be no rewards for Assad’s narco-trafficking. Regional cooperation in countering narcotics is a better approach. This could include establishing a multilateral interdiction center at the U.S.-backed International Police Training Center in Amman to help provide information on smuggling operations.

With its passage of the Captagon Act as part of last year’s defense authorization bill, Congress made clear it wants the Biden administration to disrupt Syrian narcotrafficking, not encourage Assad to use it as a bargaining chip. When dealing with a narco-regime, whose finances depend on a criminal enterprise, there can be no true normalization.

Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute in Washington, DC, focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.


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