Is Iran building a narco-state in southern Syria? - opinion

It may be only a matter of time before Iran puts in place drones for use with its multi-layered terror-narco militia mafia state it is building in southern Syria.

Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. (photo credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS)
Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021.
(photo credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS)

When drug smugglers are intercepted there are not usually large numbers of casualties. Even in a large drug war, like the kind that has happened in Mexico, the news of the killing of 27 smugglers would be a big story. However, this is exactly what the Kingdom of Jordan says happened on its border overnight. 

The Jordanian Armed Forces border guards claim to have killed 27 “drug smugglers” as they tried to infiltrate from Syria. That is a lot of smugglers. The report says this happened on Wednesday night or Thursday morning and it took place under the “cover of snow.” That means that a massive smuggling operation, clearly lying in wait and planning, was set in motion this week to coincide with bad weather.

Jordan’s official statement says “the smugglers were backed up by armed groups, adding some of the smugglers were injured and fled back to Syrian territory…. Troops combed the areas where the incidents took place and found large quantities of narcotics, the army said, indicating that the search was still underway.”

The report says that the “encounters with the smugglers occurred simultaneously on different fronts on the border with Syria.” The Jordanian army said it will continue to apply recently-introduced new rules of engagement and will strike with "an iron fist" any smuggling or infiltration attempt targeting national security. 

It turns out this wasn’t the only major smuggling attack overnight. On the Egypt-Israel border, the Israeli army and Border Police were also involved in a clash that saw two Israeli Border Police wounded.

 An Egyptian man looks on by an Egyptian military outpost at the Israel-Egypt border as seen from southern Israel September 27, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) An Egyptian man looks on by an Egyptian military outpost at the Israel-Egypt border as seen from southern Israel September 27, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

“Overnight, nine smuggling attempts of drugs took place across the Egyptian border. IDF troops who operated to thwart the activity spotted a number of suspects who began firing at them and responded with fire. IDF troops confiscated 400 kilograms of drugs worth approximately NIS 8,000,000. Two Israeli Border Police were lightly injured as a result of misidentification that led into a double-sided shooting,” the IDF said. 

Let’s pause for a second and consider this. Overnight, the Kingdom of Jordan was attacked at numerous places along the border simultaneously. This resulted in large clashes of which some 27 are known to have been killed. Usually when there is a battle or a clash the number of dead is only a small tip of the iceberg of the actual numbers involved. Were the 27 perhaps only 10% of those involved? Was Jordan attacked by “smugglers” that actually appear to be operating in armed units the size of battalions and regiments?

Another option is that the casualties were inflicted over several days and announced today. BBC noted that “the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said its sources had reported clashes between Jordanian border guards and drug smugglers on Tuesday night.” Another possibility is that the official statement has exaggerated the numbers killed.

Nevertheless, the reality is that the reference to “armed groups” appears to point to a much more important regional implication. The incidents apparently took place in Suweida province in southern Syria. This area is between the town of Dara’a and the US garrison at Tanf. Iranian-backed militias, including groups like Hezbollah, want to play a larger role here. The smugglers have become bolder in Syria. An army officer in Jordan was killed recently in mid-January. 

The BBC notes that “Jordanian officials have blamed Lebanon's militant Hezbollah movement and other Iran-backed militias operating in government-controlled parts of southern Syria for the surge in smuggling into the kingdom.”

Clearly, the role of Hezbollah, and therefore Iran, means that any clash involving dozens killed on the Jordanian border could have much wider ramifications. Is Iran in fact trying to destabilize Jordan and the Gulf by moving massive quantities of drugs through Syria. Are Iran and its proxies turning Syria into a narco-state, using the fact that the Syrian regime is weak to hollow out part of Syria and use it to traffic drugs and weapons?

This is the model other terrorist groups have used, such as some groups in Latin America. Hezbollah is likely keenly aware of how the narco-terror nexus works because it has worked in South America and also in West Africa.  

Hezbollah has played a role in the Tri-Border Area that is between the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu, the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este and the Argentine city of Puerto Iguazu.

A 2019 report at The Wilson Center noted that “the Tri-Border Area (TBA) has long been considered a hub for criminal activities: arms and drug trafficking; smuggling of goods; counterfeited documents and currency; money laundering; and the movement of pirated goods. The geographical proximity of the three main urban centers in the TBA – the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu, the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este and the Argentine city of Puerto Iguazu – facilitates the work of criminal and terrorist groups, who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the local public institutions.”

Hezbollah and groups linked to it have a role there. Here we can see how Hezbollah and Iran may be trying to turn southern Syria into a new “Tri-Border Area,” utilizing the South America model to position these groups in the area of Iraq, Syria and Jordan. The area of operations is Albukamal, Deir Ezzor, Mayadin, and apparently Suweida and areas near Dara’a and the Golan.  

Iran’s hand may be closer to the border clashes with Jordan than is widely known. The Arabic-language media Al-Hadath reported that the clashes this week were with Iranian militias. Iran may be using drugs to fund the militias and the militias then create bases to help Iran move weapons to Hezbollah and to target US forces at Tanf, as well as destabilize Jordan and move drugs to the Gulf, with the goal being to weaken the Gulf.

Iran has also flooded Iraq with drugs and Iraq has busted smugglers from Iran in the past. According to Al-Monitor, “Iraq suffers from the flow of drugs from neighboring countries, especially Iran, through the marshes and other border crossings.” Trucks are used to move drugs to Iraq from Iran. 

Once Iran hollows out an area, bankrupting local government and outsourcing government roles to its mini-IRGC militias, it then moves in drugs and missiles and other weapons. Iran, for instance, sought to move into the Golan areas after the Syrian regime retook the area in the summer of 2018.

Hezbollah moved drones to safe houses near the Golan and in August 2019, Israel used an airstrike to neutralize the “killer drone” team. In February 2018 Iran also used a drone from T-4 base to fly into Israeli air space. That drone was allegedly heading for the West Bank with munitions. Iran also flew a drone from Iraq into Israel in May 2021. Israel shot down the drones of May 2021 and February 2018.

It may be only a matter of time before Iran puts in place drones for use with its multi-layered terror-narco militia mafia state it is building in southern Syria, a mafia-narco-terror state that is linked to Hezbollah-occupied southern Lebanon and also to Iraq, via Basra and then on to the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Drugs such as Captagon.

In June, Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate for Narcotics Control said it had thwarted an “attempt to smuggle 14 million Captagon amphetamine tablets hidden inside a shipment of iron plates coming from Lebanon,” according to Saudi Press Agency SPA. This may be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Iran is doing to knit together the drug and terror trade in the region.