BEIRUT — Jordanian troops killed 27 suspected drug smugglers in a dramatic gun battle along a snow-choked stretch of the Syrian border early Thursday, in what officials described as the bloodiest clash to date in an escalating conflict with criminal networks operating out of Syria.
It was the most serious incident in a string of clashes with smugglers over the past two years as the kingdom has confronted a wave of illicit drugs spilling across the border from what U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say are major manufacturing hubs in Syria. Billions of dollars’ worth of Syrian-made Captagon has been seized over the past two years by authorities in nearly a dozen countries, from the Persian Gulf to southern Europe.
The gun battle occurred in the pre-dawn hours amid heavy snow and fog that severely limited visibility, according to Jordanian officials familiar with the events. The suspected smugglers breached a berm and fence in an unpopulated stretch of the border and were well into Jordanian territory when they were confronted.
After the suspected smugglers opened fire, a gun battle erupted that left 27 of the intruders dead and dozens of others fleeing back into Syria, according to two officials briefed on the incident. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of a military operation, said no Jordanian soldiers were killed or wounded.
Photos posted by the army showed at least seven stuffed burlap sacks in the back of a captured vehicle. A senior official familiar with the event said 3.4 million tablets of Captagon were seized, along with nearly 2,500 fist-size bags of hashish.
“The area is covered entirely by snow, and this took place overnight, so there’s snow and fog and no visibility,” a second official said in a phone interview. “This is the season they try to take advantage of to cross over the border.”
It was the second major seizure of Syrian Captagon this month, coming on the heels of the discovery of 5.5 million Captagon tablets in an operation earlier in January. In addition, a Jordanian soldier was killed and several others were wounded in a clash with drug smugglers near the Syrian border on Jan. 16.
Jordan’s porous border with Syria has long seen the transit of contraband of various kinds. But in recent weeks, Jordanian officials have sounded alarms about the scale of drug trafficking as well as growing efforts by drug dealers to draw in Jordanian customers. Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, said during a visit to Washington two weeks ago that the preeminent threat Jordan faces from across its northern border has shifted in recent months from terrorism to drugs.
“Hardly a week passes by without our military aborting one or two attempts to bring drugs into the country,” Safadi said at a Brookings Institution forum on Jan. 13. “In the past, we were looked at as a transit market … but now, with the advent of chemical drugs like Captagon, we’re becoming a target.”
Captagon is a popular brand name for the drug fenethylline, an amphetamine that is banned in most countries but widely used as a recreational drug in parts of the Middle East. Militant groups such as the Islamic State have provided the drug as a stimulant to fighters.
Manufacturing centers for the drug sprang up in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in the 1980s. But more recently, production has moved into Syria, with the drug becoming an important revenue source for a country wrecked by war. U.S. officials and experts have accused Syria’s government of turning a blind eye to the Captagon trade, which they say helps finance militia groups and earns hefty profits for corrupt military and government officials.
“A decade of civil conflict and breakdown of governance has created prime conditions for not only Captagon smuggling and consumption but also large-scale manufacturing by both non-state and state actors,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst an author of an forthcoming study on Captagon by the Washington-based Newlines Institute.
While Syrian officials deny any involvement with the Captagon trade, many of the largest international Captagon seizures have involved shipments that originated in regime-owned and -operated ports such as Tartus and Latakia, noted Rose, who said the use of the ports “would require at least ministry-level knowledge and complicity.”
The latest violence in Jordan is likely to add to the growing pressure on the Biden administration to back new anti-drug measures as part of its still-evolving strategy for resolving Syria’s civil war.
“This shootout should be a wake-up call to the administration and U.S. partners on the destabilizing effects of Syria’s emergence as a narco-state for the wider region,” said Matthew Zweig, a former State Department senior adviser and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
The Jordanian army has been regularly announcing large seizures of Captagon, with a reported 361 smuggling operations thwarted and more than 15 million various pills captured in the past year. The pills often are packed in coffee canisters and milk cartons, as well as alongside pomegranates and in other containers, and shipped to wealthy Persian Gulf countries via Jordan.
Jordan had reduced bilateral relations with Syria after President Bahar al-Assad’s harsh crackdown on the popular protests that swept the country in 2011.
In October, Jordan’s King Abdullah II spoke with Assad for the first time in a decade. The call took place a week after the two countries reopened the key Nassib border crossing, which followed border security talks between Syria and Jordan.
Warrick reported from Washington.