Eyas Ghreiz delves into the complex dynamics of the Southern Agreement in Syria, the restoration of Jordan-Syrian relations, and the troubling impact of the drug trade on regional peace.
Amidst ongoing conflict, efforts to tackle the drug trade have been complicated by security issues, political motivation and external influences. Eyas argues that comprehensive stability is needed in Syria to achieve peace at a local and national level.
The Southern Agreement signed between opposition factions in southern Syria and the Syrian regime under Russian auspices in 2018 gradually restored Jordanian-Syrian relations after a rupture that lasted for more than six years. The two neighbors reached a breaking point when Jordan aligned itself with international and regional resolutions, such as Security Council Resolution No. 2254, related to the need to find a comprehensive solution to the conflict in Syria through a cease-fire, and a peaceful transfer of power. However, the failure of peace processes over more than a decade led way to recent moves to normalize relationships with the Syrian regime. For Jordan, this materialized by the reopening of the Naseb border crossing and the restoration of economic ties between the kingdom and Syria. However, the Jordanian-Syrian border became a key route for the smuggling of drug into the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. This blog discusses the impact of drug trade on regional peace.
Since 2018, efforts to restore relations between the Syrian regime and neighboring countries have been driven by a number of security challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the spread of Iranian militias in south Syria, and the increase in assassinations and kidnappings that accompanied military escalation in various areas in Daraa Governorate between 2018 and 2022. In September 2021, the Syrian Minister of Defense met senior security officials in Amman in a first visit of such scale in ten years. At the centre of the visit was a discussion around border security, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, and tackling the proliferation of local and foreign militias linked to Iran. At the regional level, Saudi Arabia led the return of Syria to the Arab embrace that materialized in the official return of Syria to the Arab League in May 2023.
Despite its return to the front of regional politics, Syria is still characterized by a large number of conflicts and a war economy, especially in the south. More than a shadow trade, the drug trade has become a parallel and organized market jointly managed by several parties, including the Fourth Division of the Syrian Army, the Syrian Military Security Intelligence and foreign militias from Lebanon and Iran. The drug trade is one of the most important sources of revenue for these armed militias in southern Syria and a key financial contributor to sustained violence. Foreign militias use the dividends of drug trafficking to pay their fighters’ salaries, buy weapons to increase their control over the region and reward the local residents involved in the traffic. They also use the drug market as a recruiting pool to attract disfranchised youth who fill the ranks of armed groups in exchange for financial stability and social protection. In other words, the drug trade contributed to the increased weaponization and securitization in south Syria, thereby prolonging the conflict.
This progressive weaponization and securitization in south Syria must be analysed in the context of the withdrawal of Russia as a peace guarantor in the region. In the framework of the Astana peace process, Russian military assumed the task of maintaining power balance between the many armed groups in the south to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime. However, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict prompted Russia to partially withdraw its forces from Syria, which led to fears that the fragile truce negotiated between the Syrian regime and opposition groups might collapse. Raising fears prompted a meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister and King Abdullah II in Amman at the end of 2022. The meeting dealt with Jordanian concerns about the continued smuggling of drugs from southern Syria across its borders. In addition, the drug file was one of the most prominent topics of discussion during the meeting that brought together the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria in Amman, as part of the efforts exerted to reach a political solution in Syria through a joint Jordanian-Arab initiative.
Despite increased cooperation and the formation of an Arab liaison committee in cooperation with the Syrian regime to contain the drug problem, the Jordanian, Lebanese and Saudi authorities regularly thwart attempts to smuggle drugs from Syria. This can be seen as the genuine failure to curb a well-oiled drug machine that enjoys the complicity of certain military and custom officers and a large cross-border network. But one might also question the political will of the Syrian regime and its allies inside Syria to effectively tackle the drug problem. It seems that the regime might be using the drug file as a political card in the negotiations with its neighbors on the end of the Syrian conflict. In other words, a threat as big as that of a regional drug trade might prompt Arab countries to scale down their demands to the Syrian regime and support reconstruction. However, the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries still stand in the way of potential Arab investment attempts in Syrian businesses or reconstruction projects. As a result, the normalization between the Syrian regime and its Arab neighbors might be limited to political support and military cooperation to contain Iranian influence in the south of Syria. But Arab countries are not able, at the time of writing this piece, to provide an economic alternative to the Syrian regime. Therefore, the economic toll of twelve years of conflict and international sanctions make it unlikely for the Syrian regime to renounce the vast resources that stem from drug trafficking.
Finally, in order to reach peace at a regional level, real peace must be achieved at a local level, and peace at a local level can only be achieved by imposing comprehensive stability in Syria. In light of the continuation of the conflict between the local parties and the widening trust gap between the Syrian regime and the local communities, the state of security vacuum in the region will continue, which will enhance the increase in illegal activities such as the drug trade, which threatens peace processes at the local and regional levels.
Eyas Ghreiz has 12 years of experience as a development practitioner and researcher with INGOs and Multilateral Development Agencies in civil society, community engagement, Capacity Building, Community Engagement, Partnerships, Good Governance and policy development. Eyas has a master’s degree in International Development (Conflict, Security and Development) from The University of Birmingham. Currently, Eyas is working as a program officer for an NGO Empowerment Program and is a researcher working on several projects led by Dr. Juline Beaujouan at the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform Research Programme (PeaceRep) based at the University of Edinburgh.
This blog is part of a new series of policy briefs and blogs focusing on the challenges of borders and conflict lines, free movement, and humanitarian aid delivery in Syria.