Will Jordan expand military targeting in southern Syria?
Three days after the Jordanian air force carried out airstrikes in southern Syria on January 5, Jordan has not officially announced strikes inside Syrian territory, but Jordanian military sources informed local media that Amman was responsible for the attacks without official confirmation.
The airstrikes, which military sources claimed targeted drug smugglers and damaged civilian properties in southern Syria, came after an escalation in smuggling operations from Syria to Jordan, accompanied by weapons smuggling and intermittent clashes between smugglers and the Jordanian army.
The Jordanian TV channel “Al-Mamlaka” quoted an informed source, unnamed, stating that Jordan executed two aerial strikes on sites inside Syrian territory as part of a pursuit of drug smugglers along the border between the two countries.
Hours after the airstrikes in southern Syria, Reuters cited “converging intelligence sources” stating that Jordan launched an airstrike inside Syrian territory against suspected “drug dealers’ warehouses and hideouts,” adding that the airstrikes also targeted a house suspected to belong to a drug dealer in the area, near the Jordanian border.
Jordan is restless
The airstrike in southern Syria is the third of its kind during the years that followed the “settlement” agreement, which marked the regime’s latest control over the region at the expense of Syrian opposition factions, with Jordan being a party to it.
Today, over five years since the regime took control of the region, smuggling operations have not ceased, and it appears that Jordan is becoming restless with ongoing smuggling operations despite its attempts to reconcile with the regime and reach an agreement to end these operations.
Jordanian officials’ frustration is evident, particularly when King Abdullah II expressed doubts regarding regime’s head Bashar al-Assad’s control over “his country” at the Global Middle East Summit in September 202, adding he was not sure if al-Assad was fully in charge of the country in view of the “major problem” of drugs and weapons being smuggled into Jordan.
The Jordanian monarch’s statements followed those made by former Jordanian Minister of Information, Samih al-Maaytah, in the same month, accusing the Syrian regime of direct involvement in the issue of drug smuggling.
Jordan’s attempts to control smuggling have always involved efforts to communicate with the Syrian regime to reach a solution to halt the flow of drugs into its territories, but these efforts failed over the years. Later, these attempts turned into air force strikes in southern Syria targeting smugglers.
Has Jordanian response changed?
On December 19, 2023, the Chairman of the Jordanian Joint Chiefs of Staff, Major General Yousef Huneiti, stated that Jordan’s armed forces used all capabilities and resources to prevent infiltration and smuggling and responded to them with force.
The Jordanian TV channel “Al-Mamlaka” quoted the armed forces as saying that border guard forces, in coordination with the anti-drug administration and military security agencies, clashed with “armed groups” attempting to cross the borders from Syria to Jordan illegally.
The confrontation ended after 14 hours and resulted in the killing and injury of several smugglers, the arrest of nine, and the seizure of “large quantities” of drugs and automatic and missile weapons.
This smuggling operation represented a clear shift in smuggling operations, as smugglers attempted to forcefully cross the border between the two countries. It was the fifth attack of its kind within ten days, as Jordanian authorities announced on the 5th, 12th, 14th, and 15th of the same month clashes between their forces and armed smugglers, resulting in the killing of an unidentified Jordanian soldier and a number of smugglers.
Also, on January 6th, Jordan’s official television reported clashes with “armed groups” coming from Syria, which lasted for hours and resulted in the expulsion of the “armed groups of smugglers” back into Syrian territory.
Military affairs researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, Rashid Hourani, told Enab Baladi that a combination of factors contributed to a change in Jordan’s responses to smuggling operations, the most important being Jordan’s role in the issue of Arab normalization with the Syrian regime, offering what was then called the “non-paper” aimed at addressing the smuggling issue.
These moves were followed by Arab openness to the regime’s presence at the Riyadh summit, which addressed the issue of drug smuggling and its security and social threats to Jordan and the Gulf states, the ultimate destination for the drugs.
Building on Jordan’s efforts to persuade the Syrian regime to control the borders, which fell on deaf ears, Jordan’s reactions turned into direct targeting in southern Syria.
Hourani added that Jordan is looking to expand its military operations in southern Syria over time, in coordination with other concerned parties, especially since southern Syria is geopolitically important to many parties, most notably Israel, Russia, the guarantor of the “settlement” agreement, the United States, which has a military base there, and Iran, which aspires to penetrate the region.
The researcher considered that the capability of the Jordanian army to apply combat rules proportional to the threats to its security was established over the past years, and Jordan wants to build on that going forward, while the Syrian regime manipulates initiatives presented to it in the Arab world.
Strikes could expand over time
On May 8, 2023, unidentified warplanes carried out airstrikes on targets in al-Lajat area between the provinces of Daraa and As-Suwayda in southern Syria, leaving eight members of a family dead, including six children.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa reported that an unidentified aircraft flew over southern Syria at low altitude, followed by the sound of explosions coming from al-Lajat area east of Daraa governorate, near the Jordanian border.
Quoting intelligence sources, Reuters reported that the Jordanian air force carried out the strike after the “patience” of Jordan ran out due to the failure to fulfill promises to limit drug smuggling to its territories. However, the Jordanian kingdom has not officially claimed responsibility for the attack to this day.
The local al-Lajat Press reported that the Jordanian air force targeted the house of the Syrian drug dealer and smuggler Marie al-Ramthan in the village of al-Shaab in the al-Lajat area, leading to the deaths of six children and two adults.
On December 19, 2023, warplanes, believed to be Jordanian, targeted “hideouts” of drug smugglers in southern Syria in response to a “major” smuggling operation coming from Syria, according to Reuters, citing regional intelligence sources and another Western diplomat following the situation, who was not named.
On January 5th, airstrikes, believed to be Jordanian, targeted southern Syria without any country formally claiming responsibility amid continued drug smuggling operations across the border from Syria to Jordan.
Researcher Rashid Hourani believes that it is possible for these strikes to expand in the future for several reasons, most notably, the security and military capabilities of the Jordanian side and its monitoring of the movements of smuggling groups.
He added that the lack of cover protecting the smugglers in southern Syria allows Jordan to act against them freely, as they are now seen as individuals benefiting financially from the proceeds of drug trade and smuggling. Therefore, the regime sacrifices them.
Hourani considered that Jordan’s international relations to put an end to smuggling operations towards it play a fundamental role in the possibility of the expansion of these targeting, especially those with the United States and Russia.
In mid-2022, the Jordanian army stated while discussing the conditions of the Syrian-Jordanian borders that the Jordanian armed forces are facing “Iranian organizations acting on external agendas,” targeting Jordan’s national security.
In a televised interview with the government’s Al-Mamlaka channel, the director of military media, Mustafa al-Hiyari, announced that the Jordanian forces are facing a “drug war” on the northeastern borders of Jordan, pointing out that the past three years have seen a significant increase in smuggling and infiltration operations.
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