Jordan confronts double war in southern Syria
Enab Baladi – Diya Assi
The increasing Iranian influence in southern Syria, following reports of Russia reducing forces in Syria to reinforce its fighting front in Ukraine, has raised Jordan’s concerns about Iran filling this void, which Amman considered an explicit threat to its security and the countries of the region.
In an unprecedentedly strong tone, Jordan pointed the finger at the Syrian regime for its support for smuggling groups and considered that it was facing a “drug war” on the northern border.
According to an article by the Jusoor Center for Studies, titled “Chances of normalization success with the Syrian regime by Arab countries declining,” published on 20 May, in which it was considered that Jordan, for the first time, holds the Syrian regime responsible for the violations and security problems on the Jordanian borders since the opening of the Nasib crossing between both parties in September 2021.
In the fray of questions about the possibility of a change in the Jordanian position towards the Syrian regime, given the recent Jordanian statements, including the warning of Jordanian King Abdullah II, on 18 May, that Iran and its “proxies” would fill the void left by Russia in southern Syria, and what may result in an escalation of potential problems on his country’s borders, Jusoor Center indicated that the Jordanian discourse reflects clear dissatisfaction with the regime’s behavior in southern Syria.
This came as a result of the Syrian regime’s lack of ability or desire to prevent the activity of the Iranian militias, whose number of sites located in Daraa and As-Suwayda governorates increased during the period from last February to May, with the facilitation and cooperation of the regime’s Fourth Division, which shares with these militias in drug smuggling operations across the Jordanian border.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, the Jordanian strategic expert, Dr. Amer al-Sabaileh, said that the Jordanian policy has been consistent in dealing with Syria over the course of the crisis and pointed out that there has been a positive rapprochement in the past periods.
Signs of rapprochement are still present, although relations at the political level have neither developed nor relapsed at the same time, which can be considered a constant and unchanging matter, regardless of all the transformations that the region is witnessing, according to the Jordanian expert.
Al-Sabaileh considered that the Russian presence in the areas of southern Syria is a guarantor of calm and that the security imbalance led to the presence of Iranian militias in these areas.
Jordan considers that Iranian influence constitutes a real threat to it, and confronting it requires cooperation, whether at the regional level or even with the Syrian regime, according to al-Sabaileh, pointing out the need for the Syrian regime to have “goodwill” in the way it cooperates with Jordan.
Proxy drug war
Talking about the situation on the Syrian-Jordanian border, the Jordanian army said that the Jordanian armed forces are facing Iranian organizations that have foreign agendas and target Jordan’s national security.
Mustafa al-Hiyari, the head of Jordan’s Military Information Directorate, told the state-run al-Mamlaka TV channel on 23 May that the Jordanian forces are facing a “drug war” on Jordan’s northeastern borders, noting that the last three years have witnessed a double increase in smuggling and infiltration operations.
“Smuggling groups sometimes receive support from undisciplined groups from the Syrian border guards and other groups,” considering them as “systematic operations,” al-Hiyari said.
He also stressed that the armed forces are facing this threat on behalf of the Jordanian people, Jordan, the region’s countries that are also targeted, and the world, as many reports have recently indicated that drugs manufactured in Syria have reached EU countries, especially Italy.
US hidden role
Retired Syrian Brigadier-General Asaad al-Zoubi told Enab Baladi that Jordan’s Arab and Western support to confront the Iranian threat depends on the degree of rivalry, especially after the US pessimism about the possibility of reviving the Iranian nuclear agreement and the US-Russian tension in their indirect confrontation in Ukraine.
Al-Zoubi believes that the policies of many countries are running according to special administration and interests or countries affiliated with them, pointing out that the deteriorating global reality has cast a dark shadow on the Syrian regime.
The military expert believes that there is a plan issued by the US, and the affiliated parties are translating what they care about, considering the situation with the Russian presence or without it the same, and the thing that changes is the US decision or guidance.
Talking about what Jordan’s statements carry from other aspects, the researcher at Jusoor Center for Studies, Abdulwahab Assi, believes that Jordan can rely on a batch of diplomatic and security measures to curb the growing environment of instability in southern Syria.
This batch includes the United States’ intervention to pressure Russia as a first step in order to use its influence and to communicate with the Syrian regime directly or through one of the Arab countries to persuade it to reduce the size of its military deployment in the region and to end destabilizing activities, including the production, export, and promotion of drugs. In addition to carrying out security operations along the border strip against drug smugglers.
Eighth Brigade: Russia’s amputated arm
Talks have escalated since last April about Russia reducing the number of its military forces in Syria in order to strengthen its fighting front in Ukraine as The Moscow Times website reported that Russia has been reducing the number of its forces in Syria due to the military operations in Ukraine, and handing over military points to Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
On 24 May, the Russian forces evacuated new positions in the countryside of Daraa governorate, southern Syria, without information about the replacement of local forces backed by the Syrian regime or Iran in the region.
The Russian withdrawal was preceded by the Russian military police’s abandonment of its support for the Eighth Brigade at the end of 2021, and it also agreed to its joining the Military Intelligence Division, which made Russia lose a strong arm that possesses equipment and fighters.
According to Brigadier-General Asaad al-Zoubi, the brigade was operating under the command of the Russians in theory, and in reality, it was and still is operating under the orders of the regime.
In the event that Iran takes the helm, the matter will be the same because the orders will be passed through the Syrian regime, and it does not matter who issued them because the implementation tool is one, which is the Eighth Brigade.
Al-Zoubi pointed out that there are many honorable members of the brigade, who will not accept to work with Iran, and they will not be able to work with Jordan in confronting Iran unless protection is provided to them, and in the event of battles, al-Zoubi expected that there would be defections from the brigade.
Abdulwahab Assi believes that Jordan’s fears may not be directly related to the increase in Iranian influence, as the Russian military presence in southern Syria has not changed significantly, with the exception of redeployment in some locations.
The concerns, according to Assi, include Russia’s retreat from its commitments to the joint understandings reached in July 2018, which are to prevent Iran from expanding, but it was able to increase the size of its spread directly or indirectly through the Fourth Division and the security branches.
Jordan’s fears are also related to the fight against drugs, after southern Syria has become a manufacturing, export, and promotion center for the kingdom’s lands and towards the Gulf States through Jordan, which poses a threat to its national security, according to Assi.
On the possibility of Iran’s support for the Eighth Brigade, Assi considered it impossible, and everything that is being circulated in this regard is inaccurate. On the contrary, the researcher believes that Jordan can rely on the Eighth Brigade to counter Iran’s influence in the region.
Diplomatic approach under military cover
In response to the Jordanian monarch’s response to the Iranian role in destabilizing the Middle East, during a television interview within the Hoover Institute program, he referred to the efforts of some Arab and Gulf countries in communicating with Tehran and said, “Of course we want everyone to be part of a new start for the Middle East and to move forward, but we have security challenges.”
The escalation in the Syrian-Jordanian borders and the Iranian militias’ activities in the region are separated from the political and diplomatic work. For the Iranians, the communication channels have always been open, with a desire to use the situation and developments for political gains, according to al-Sabaileh.
He pointed out that Jordan cannot be considered in a state of enmity with Iran, as the region has become accustomed to the idea of confrontation by proxy, which is “ongoing and will continue,” but without an explicit and direct declaration from the parties.
Al-Sabaileh stressed that Jordan receives and will receive additional support in the face of potential threats, as it cannot be isolated from its allies, as the United States has an important military presence in Jordan, and NATO sees Jordan as an ally and a strategic partner.
Drug smuggling and its presence is a reality for Jordan, and the fear, according to al-Sabaileh, is that the confrontations will include “terrorist organizations” not only “drug gangs,” which may turn into the export of weapons and “terrorists” to Jordan, stressing the need for Jordan to obtain political and economic support from allies for such confrontations.
For the western axis, Jordan represents the only stable place in the region, and therefore work must be done preemptively to mitigate any dangers that are reflected in the Jordanian interior, said al-Sabaileh.
On 5 December 2021, The New York Times reported that the Fourth Division led by Maher al-Assad is responsible for the manufacture and export of the narcotic Captagon bills, in addition to the fact that businessmen with close ties to the regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia lead the trade in it.
In late April 2021, a study issued by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) revealed the scale of the disaster, as it indicated that Syria had become a global center for the production of the narcotic Ceptagon with advanced technologies and that the value of its exports exceeded 3 billion and 46 million US dollars.
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