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

Jordanian troops killed 27 people they described as armed drug smugglers who were trying to cross the border from Syria under cover of a snowstorm Thursday, a spokesman for the Jordanian Army said.

The people were killed after they opened 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 army said.

“Regarding the casualties, this is biggest we have seen,” Col. Mustafa Al Hiyari, of the Jordanian Army, said in a phone interview with The New York Times.

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

While the identity of the suspects was not clear, in the past, smugglers have come from large families and tribes whose members live on both sides of the border. Increased poverty in the area has made it easy for criminal networks to recruit couriers, Jordanian officials have said. Sometimes, the smugglers appear 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 high ranking security officials and relatives of President Bashar al-Assad, were playing lead roles in an illegal drug industry to manufacture and export illegal amphetamines. The drugs, the report said, are smuggled from Syria mostly through Jordan and Lebanon, and then further afield.

“From 2021, we have witnessed a massive increase of 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 during a similar incident. After that, the army loosened its rules of engagement along the border, giving the army more leeway to shoot at people they suspect to be smugglers.

“Because the judge recently changed rules of engagement, this has allowed us to shoot the smugglers if they are using weapons,” Colonel Hiyari said.

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

Rayan Marouf, a Syrian activist who documents casualties at the Jordan border, said that at least 15 people have been reported missing from the Ramthan clan, a community that lives along the border in the southern Syrian province of Sweida, where drug smuggling is common.

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

Mr. Marouf said the army’s new rules of engagement appear 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 about 15.5 million pills of narcotics — including captagon, an illegal amphetamine, and tramadol, a legal painkiller. The army also reported recovering more than 16,000 sheets of hashish weighing 1,675 pounds, and almost 4.5 pounds of heroin.

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

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

The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, dismissed the accusations as “fake news” in a televised speech last year and said that the group does not have anything to do with smuggling operations.

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

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