Jordan’s Army Kills 27 in Drug Bust on Syrian Border

Jordanian troops on Thursday killed 27 people they described as armed drug traffickers trying to cross the border from Syria under cover of a snowstorm, a Jordanian military spokesman said.

The people were killed after opening fire on Jordanian soldiers as they tried to cross the border in three groups on foot, the army said. They were using the weather to disguise their movement, a common tactic, the military said.

“In terms of casualties, this is the biggest we’ve seen,” Colonel Mustafa Al Hiyari of the Jordanian army said in a telephone interview with The New York Times.

Several other people suspected of being part of the smugglers’ operation, some of whom were injured, retreated to Syrian territory, Colonel Hiyari said. He said no Jordanian soldiers were injured.

While the identities of the suspects were unclear, in the past smugglers came from large families and tribes whose members lived on both sides of the border. Rising poverty in the region has made it easy for criminal networks to recruit smugglers, Jordanian officials said. Sometimes the smugglers seem to receive help from Syrian troops posted along the border.

A New York Times investigation published in December found that in the economic vacuum created by the Syrian civil war, powerful Syrians, including senior security officials and those close to President Bashar al-Assad, played a prominent role in an illegal drug industry to manufacture and export illegal amphetamines. The drugs, according to the report, are smuggled from Syria, mainly through Jordan and Lebanon, and then further afield.

“Since 2021, we have seen a massive increase in smuggling operations across the border with Syria,” Mr. Hiyari said. Last week, he said, a Jordanian army officer was killed and three others were injured in a similar incident. After that, the army relaxed its rules of engagement along the border, giving it more leeway to shoot people it suspects of being smugglers.

“Because the judge recently changed the rules of engagement, it allowed us to shoot the smugglers if they use weapons,” Colonel Hiyari said.

The military posted photos showing what it said were seized bags of narcotics on its Twitter account and vowed in a statement that it would crush any further attempts with an “iron fist”.

Rayan Marouf, a Syrian activist who documents casualties on the Jordanian border, said at least 15 people from the Ramthan clan, a community that lives along the border in Syria’s southern Sweida province, where drug trafficking is common, have been missing.

Residents of border villages reported hearing clashes overnight and stray bullets left holes in homes, he said.

Mr Marouf said the army’s new rules of engagement appeared to have made Thursday’s clash more deadly. He called it a massacre, adding: “Usually at the borders we document the killing of one or two smugglers.”

The Jordanian army reported that over the past year it had seized around 15.5 million narcotics pills, including captagon, an illegal amphetamine, and tramadol, a legal painkiller. The military also reported recovering more than 16,000 hash leaves weighing 1,675 pounds and nearly 4.5 pounds of heroin.

The Times investigation found that much of captagon’s production and distribution is overseen by the Syrian army’s Fourth Armored Division, an elite unit commanded by the president’s younger brother Basar al-Assad. , and includes businessmen with close ties to the government, Hezbollah and other members of the president’s extended family.

It’s part of an increasingly established drug trade that emerged from Syria’s decade-long civil war. The war has upended the country’s economy, reducing much of its population to poverty and prompting members of Syria’s business, political and military elite to seek new ways to earn hard currency and circumvent economic sanctions. Western.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the accusations “fake news” in a televised speech last year and said the group had nothing to do with the smuggling operations.

Rana F. Sweis Ben Hubbard and Asmaa al-Omar contributed report.