Jordan wiggles choices over Syria: Captagon war and “normalization” initiative

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi during his meeting with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus - February 15, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi during his meeting with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus - February 15, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)


Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa

The visit of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, to Jordan, and the latter’s request for help in waging the “drug war” on its borders with Syria, raised questions about the possibility of Jordanian conformity with the American recommendations not to normalize relations with the Syrian regime, in light of the existence of a Jordanian-Arab initiative to settling relations with Damascus.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II asked for U.S. assistance to combat Iran-backed militias from Iraq and Syria involved in an escalating drug war on Jordan’s border and attacking inside his kingdom. The king raised the issue when he met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Amman on March 5 and with President Joe Biden during a White House visit in early February.

The king discussed with Austin Jordan’s concerns over the growing entrenchment of Iranian-backed militias in southern Syria, whom officials say have stepped up drug-smuggling operations through its borders to reach markets in the Gulf, a Jordanian official told Reuters.

Amman wants more U.S. military aid to bolster security on the border, where Washington has since the more than decade-long conflict began given around $1 billion to establish border posts, Jordanian officials say. Jordan has a roughly 375 km-long border with Syria.

According to the Foundation for Defense for Democracies (FDD), the recent meetings are not the first time King Abdullah has expressed concerns over Iran-backed militias. In a May 2022 conversation with former U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, he raised concerns that Iranian forces in Syria could soon destabilize his country. Jordan also faces a threat from Iran-backed militias in Iraq. Additional threats loom in the south, with Iranian assets reportedly operating in the Red Sea.

Waiting for an Arabic cover

Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi arrived in Damascus on February 15 in the first such visit since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011 between the two neighbors who have long been at odds over regional issues, according to Reuters.

The visit, to show solidarity after the recent earthquake, will be followed by one to Turkey and will focus on humanitarian needs and how Jordan, a neighbor that hosts tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, can help in ongoing relief operations, Jordanian officials said.

“Safadi will discuss the humanitarian and aid needs that the two countries need,” a statement from the foreign ministry said, adding that aid planes will fly to both countries. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met Safadi in a meeting that Jordanian officials downplayed as a political gesture towards Damascus whom the staunch U.S. ally is at odds over a range of regional issues, Reuters reported.

In September 2022, Jordan announced an Arab initiative to achieve peace in Syria through its Foreign Minister Safadi, but it did not achieve its goals in light of the opposition of other Arab parties.

The Arab initiative is based on United Nations Resolutions 2254 and 2642. On the impact of US sanctions and Washington’s views on an Arab-led process, Safadi said, “Everyone wants to see an end to this crisis and is open to any mechanism that achieves that.”

The Jordanian expert on Syrian affairs, Salah Malkawi, told Enab Baladi that the Jordanian position has not changed regarding the Syrian regime since 2011, that there should be no solution but the political solution in Syria, pointing out that the Jordanian embassy in Damascus has not been closed to date.

Regarding the American position on the Syrian regime, Malkawi believes that it “does not contradict” the Jordanian position, as the American demands aim to pressure the regime towards pushing it towards a political solution in accordance with UN resolutions, which is what Jordan’s Arab initiative also aims at.

On February 28, the US House of Representatives approved by an overwhelming majority a resolution that must be passed by the Senate before it is endorsed by U.S. President Joe Biden, stipulating that anyone who normalizes relations with the Syrian regime will be held accountable.

The decision came after Arab movements following the devastating earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey on February 6, which included visits and meetings with al-Assad, some of which came for the first time after the revolution, including a meeting with heads of Arab parliaments, and the visit of the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, and Safadi, to Syria, and their meeting with al-Assad.

Abdul-Wahhab Assi, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the “first Arab normalization” initiative proposed by King Abdullah II in 2021 to the American president did not lead to any step in ensuring the security of the Kingdom and the Arab Gulf.

Assi attributed the reason for the failure of the initiative to the fact that the regime did not comply with any condition or step, whether with regard to the political process, the activity of Iranian militias, the fight against terrorism, or the return of refugees.

On the contrary, it took steps that would increase the pressure and security threat to the Arab countries, as it allowed Iran to deploy its air defense system in the capital and southern Syria, and the Syrian air defense infrastructure became open to its militias as well, the researcher says.

While the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, presented the second Arab initiative, Jordan had sent its foreign minister to Damascus for the first time since 2011, which means, according to Assi, that it is still counting on the success of the Arab efforts supported by Russia in solving security problems coming from Syria.

Jusoor Studies researcher says Jordan is also counting on cooperation with the United States in protecting its national security, with the regime’s policy of extortion continuing, which was based on King Abdullah II’s request to the U.S. Secretary of Defense to secure his country’s borders in the drug war against Iranian militias.

The United States had previously warned regional countries against normalization with al-Assad, hinting at the sanctions imposed on the regime and those who deal with it and recalling its “terrible” human rights record after the Emirati foreign minister’s visit to Damascus earlier this year, which was preceded a week earlier by a meeting between the Syrian defense minister with his Turkish counterpart in Moscow.

The Arab initiative needs an “Arab cover,” and work is underway on it, according to the Jordanian analyst Malkawi, pointing out that Safadi’s visit aims to open a gap in the wall of the relationship between the two parties, and that the Arab initiative does not constitute a conflict with the American relationship as long as it adheres to the Caesar Act sanctions.

It is possible that Jordan’s vision of Syria has changed, according to Malkawi, after it saw that taking the Syrian conflict out of its Arab context did not serve its interest but rather opened the way for regional and then international intervention when the Russians and Americans entered the equation.

The researcher at the Jusoor center believes that what Jordan wants from the dual policy in continuing to engage in Arab normalization efforts with the regime supported by Russia and cooperating with the United States to accept these initiatives and take preventive and defensive measures at the borders, is to become a major and influential part of the policies of Washington and Moscow.

The analyst added that Jordan is helping implement an American policy based on “double and differentiated containment of the regime and Iran,” and in return, it achieves part of its security and economic goals in cooperation with Russia.

Jordan has led the way in Arab countries’ rapprochement with Syria. But Amman’s experience shows that, without regional coordination, bilateral normalization can win only limited concessions, the Malcolm Carnegie Center said on March 6.

According to the think tank’s report, Damascus has less room to make decisions on its own with regard to internal and external political issues, and this applies in particular to the background of its relationship with Iran, while Jordan is forced to take the opinions of its allies, especially the United States.

Captagon Act provides support

On December 23, 2022, the US President signed the US defense budget for the fiscal year 2023, which was submitted by Congress, including the law on combating the drug trade administered by the Syrian regime.

The Act requires “Countering Assad’s Proliferation Trafficking And Garnering Of Narcotics Act,” and within a period not exceeding 180 days from the date of enactment of this law, the relevant U.S. authorities must submit an implementation strategy to Congress.

Jordanian analyst Salah Malkawi pointed out that the Jordanian tendency to seek U.S. assistance to stop drug smuggling is a “natural matter,” based on the existence of military agreements between the two parties and that Jordan is an important ally of the United States in the region, always coordinating with it.

Malkawi referred to a 180-day deadline, after which an American strategy would be presented, which naturally includes assistance to Jordan in terms of rehabilitation and support programs and equipment for detection and monitoring to combat Captagon smuggling.

Under US law, the strategy should include a description of the countries receiving or transiting large shipments of the amphetamine pills and an assessment of the ability to combat drugs in these countries by interdicting or disrupting Captagon smuggling, including an assessment of current U.S. assistance, training and assistance programs to build such capabilities in these countries.

Caroline Rose, senior analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said in The National Interest that the US proposed 2022 NDAA amendment that seeks to address the Captagon drug trade may fail if it is not directed more specifically, as it only includes disabling the regime’s participation in the drug trade.

“While Captagon has been on the radar of U.S. national security agencies for years, a lack of coordination, adequate monitoring, and strategic planning on how to successfully counter the trade between U.S. departments and agencies have put the United States and its partners far behind the curve,” Rose said.

However, as the Syrian economy faltered and the Assad regime grew more desperate for alternative revenue streams, the estimated $3.5 billion Captagon trade has transformed Syria into a narco-state, with industrial-sized production that has overwhelmed regional law enforcement systems and has stuffed the coffers of the regime and its partners, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-backed militias, the analyst added.

The allies of the United States, such as Jordan, are active in combating drug smuggling from outside the Syrian borders on the one hand, and the “Free Syrian Army” (formerly Maghawir al-Thawra) from within the Syrian borders on the other.

The Free Syrian Army, with the support of the US-led International Coalition, seized, on March 6, a large shipment of narcotics destined for Jordan, coinciding with an unpublic visit by the U.S. Army’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, to an American base in Syria on March 4. 

Political analyst Abdul-Wahhab Assi believes that Jordan wants to benefit from the anti-drug law approved by Congress, as it allows support for regional countries in facing the threat posed by shipments flowing across borders.

This is done by allocating logistical, financial, and military support to the Jordanian army in order to enhance its capabilities in drug detection and even the possibility of hitting manufacturing and storage facilities in Syria.



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