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Shoot-out on Jordanian border reveals link between Syria war and drugs trade

Although Jordan is trying to steer clear of the regional conflicts gnawing at its borders, it is Amman’s drug of choice that is financing the conflict next door
A rebel fighter prepares a fireball during fighting on a front line of Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor (AFP)

An early-morning shoot-out and drug bust on Jordan’s border with Syria has left several smugglers dead and yielded a huge cache of narcotics and weapons. 

The incident highlights the fragility of Jordan’s defences against regional chaos. With a blazing civil war in Syria to its north and Islamic State militants in Iraq to its east, Jordan is under immense pressure to bolster its frontiers and repel smugglers, militants and other destabilising elements.

Border breach

Attempts by smugglers and militants to breach Jordan’s border with Syria are not uncommon. But Sunday’s incident was notable not just for the size of the drugs haul, but also for involvement of factions already operating inside Jordan.

According to a Jordan armed forces statement, border guards spotted two vehicles approaching from the Syrian frontier at dawn. Guards fired warning shots for the vehicles to stop and opened fire when they did not. At this point, two additional vehicles approached from the Jordanian side of the border “to assist the infiltrators”. A shoot-out ensued, prompting authorities to seal off the area. All would-be infiltrators were reported killed.

Government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani told Middle East Eye, “Jordan continues to deal with uncontrolled borders from the Syrian side, from which we get attempts to infiltrate through our borders. Jordanian military forces engage decisively and strongly, destroying and killing all those who try to cross our borders.”

But those attempts are getting bolder and more sophisticated, and the drugs and weapons hauls are growing.

When authorities examined the vehicles involved in Sunday’s attempt, they found sniper rifles, pistols, radios, binoculars, hashish and more than six million Captagon pills. Momani called this volume of Captagon “significant”.

Captagon is the brand name of a psychostimulant called Fenethylline. It’s an amphetamine known to be used by militants in Syria and Iraq, in order to give them a chemical boost to fight longer and harder.

In Jordan, Captagon is a recreational drug. It’s used by high-school and university students looking to cheat sleep in exam season, or for a speedy, amphetamine buzz. Users report feeling alert, focused, better able to concentrate.

“Among the elites, you can’t imagine the demand,” a young Jordanian familiar with the recreational drug scene told Middle East Eye.

“People take it at house parties all the time. MDMA is not so popular, but Captagon, we call it ‘crystals’, is huge.”

Drugs connection

The rise of Captagon in Jordan underscores the connection between Syria’s war and Jordan’s drugs scene. Several young people in Amman who use the drug or know people who do say its availability has increased significantly since the start of the Syrian conflict.

Captagon is a cheap and relatively simple drug to make, and a packet of top-quality pills can sell for up to 200 JOD in Amman. Poorer-quality pills are known in Amman as “seven-eights” and they sell for between 60 and 80 JOD per packet.

The drug is manufactured in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria. This latest bust - on the heels of a series of similar, though smaller-scale incidents - suggests a growing flow of Captagon from Syria to Jordan; the profit of this trade would likely flow back into Syria. The drug’s prevalence on Syrian and Iraqi battlefields underscores the connection between drugs and war - and how, despite the blockades on Jordan’s borders, Amman’s drug of choice may be helping to finance the conflict next door.

Jordan has thus far managed to keep the regional conflict out, despite opening its doors to more than a million Syrian refugees and feeling their impact across economic, social services and security sectors. The country is economically at breaking point. But authorities say the border is a red line. With backing from allies in the region and the west, they’re working flat out to lock down the kingdom’s frontiers and preserve its territorial integrity at almost any cost. It’s a battle Jordan cannot afford to lose.