As the civilian death toll continues to rise, Jordan has come under growing criticism for its airstrikes in southern Syria’s Suwayda Governorate, aimed at combatting drug trafficking and smuggling operations. The Jordanian Air Force has repeatedly made mistakes since carrying out its first airstrike nearly nine months ago, on May 8, 2023, against Merhi al-Ramthan, an alleged Syrian kingpin accused of smuggling drugs into Jordan, killing him, his wife, and their six children. On multiple occasions, the local population in Suwayda has said that the airstrikes have caused civilian deaths and damaged homes and personal property, even if some of those targeted have included people accused of drug trafficking and smuggling into Jordan.
Nearly one year on: Airstrikes still causing civilian deaths
The Jordanian Air Force began its airstrikes almost one year ago, a few days after Jordanian Prime Minister Ayman al-Safadi threatened to launch a military operation inside Syria to put an end to drug smuggling into Jordan. Amman has justified its military intervention, which has included heightened border security measures and airstrikes in southern Syria, by claiming that its goal is to stop drug smuggling into its territory, eliminate drug traffickers, and destroy their factories, which have become a major concern for the kingdom in the past few years.
In early May 2023, Jordan launched its first airstrikes against drug traffickers and smugglers in southern Syria. At the time, the Jordanian Air Force targeted al-Shaab village in southern Suwayda and a water treatment plant between Daraa and Kharab al-Shahm. The first strike killed alleged drug smuggler Merhi al-Ramthan along with his family, while the second strike destroyed a facility used to manufacture and package Captagon tablets.
Both the local community in Suwayda and Syrians more broadly condemned the airstrikes for causing civilian deaths. Activists and public figures in Suwayda, as well as other Syrian politicians and activists, called upon Jordan to investigate the incident and take measures to prevent the targeting of civilians. However, Jordan did not comment or respond to their demands.
Jordan subsequently continued to carry out airstrikes and engaged in near-daily skirmishes with smugglers along its northern border with Syria. On Dec. 19, 2023, the Jordanian Air Force bombed a farm in the village of Dibin near the border, killing four people, including a woman and two children. Another person was also killed in a strike that targeted a farm owned by Faisal al-Saadi, an alleged trafficker, near the town of Salkhad.
These airstrikes provoked anger among the local community, which organized protests demanding an investigation into the killing of civilians. But once again Jordan did not comment on the incidents and continued its campaign of aerial bombardment.
On Jan. 18, Jordanian warplanes bombed the town of Orman in southeastern Suwayda as part of the kingdom’s ongoing campaign against drug trafficking and smuggling operations. The strike killed 10 civilians, most of whom were women and children from the Halabi family. Among those killed was retired Syrian Army Col. Nazih al-Halabi, who local sources said was “among the participants in the revolutionary movement against the regime in Suwayda.” The sources added that, “Halabi was in no way involved in drug trafficking or smuggling.”
With his death, the number of civilian casualties in Suwayda alone since Jordan first began its airstrikes has risen to 20, most of whom are women and children.
The civilian deaths in Orman reignited the anger of the local population both in the governorate and across Syria more generally. Since then, there have been daily protests in al-Karama Square, in the heart of Suwayda city, and in different regions across the governorate, condemning the killing of civilians and criticizing the Jordanian government.
The Jordanian authorities have refused to comment on these incidents or offer clarification, much to the dismay of the local population and those affected, some of whom have questioned whether “the arbitrary nature of the airstrikes is meant to achieve objectives beyond stopping the drug trade.” In fact, some locals believe, according to interviews conducted by the author, that “the goal is to push the local community back into the arms of the regime for the airstrikes to stop.”
Salem, a resident of Orman in southeastern Suwayda, said, “The areas of southern and southeastern Suwayda have become dangerous for civilians due to the Jordanian airstrikes, which always cause civilians casualties. Meanwhile, Jordanian planes do not target Hezbollah and Iranian militia sites, even though those groups are the main producers and exporters of drugs, and trafficking and smuggling operations are carried out under their supervision.”
“Drones and warplanes are constantly flying over the southern areas of the governorate. One would think we are living in Gaza, not in Suwayda. Some people who own houses in the city of Suwayda or in northern areas of the governorate have moved there from the south for fear of being bombed,” Salem added.
The disgruntled people of Suwayda have raised several demands, including, first and foremost, that an in-depth investigation be carried out into the aerial bombing campaign and resulting civilian deaths. Their further demands include that the Jordanian government issue an apology and provide reparations to the victims and their families. Moreover, they have also called for the establishment of coordination mechanisms between the Jordanian government and military factions in Suwayda, such as the “Men of Dignity” movement, the region’s largest military faction, to combat drug smuggling operations and avoid airstrikes that target civilians. Finally, the local community has demanded that the Jordanian government focus its efforts on the Syrian regime, Iranian militias, and Hezbollah, as they are the ones who own the drug factories and supervise smuggling operations and networks into Jordan and other countries.
Men of Dignity movement
On Jan. 22, the Men of Dignity movement, founded in 2013 by Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, proposed to coordinate efforts with Jordan and share information to combat drug smuggling operations into the kingdom. The proposed initiative included nine main points, the most prominent of which was the demand that Jordan stop its military operations against civilian assets and act with wisdom, restraint, and care when taking military action, in addition to coordinating any military activities with the Men of Dignity movement.
The movement also urged Jordan to provide it with a list of the names of the individuals suspected of being involved in drug trafficking in Suwayda so it could pursue them itself and hand them over to the Jordanian authorities. In addition, the initiative called upon the Jordanian military leaders responsible for the previous airstrikes to provide compensation for civilians whose properties have been damaged, carry out a transparent investigation into the information that led to civilian casualties, apologize to the victims’ families, and offer moral and financial reparations. The movement also demanded an immediate end to the arbitrary targeting of homes and agricultural land, which has restricted people’s movements in southern villages and caused mass displacement.
Furthermore, the movement appealed to religious and social leaders in every town and village in Suwayda, as well as families and political figures, to take a public stance against those involved in drug trafficking and smuggling in their areas, to disclose their names, and to support efforts to pursue them and hold them accountable. The movement also declared its commitment to help other community and civilian groups, as well as social and religious authorities in Suwayda, in pursuing and interrogating drug smugglers and traffickers and ensuring that those found guilty are held accountable by all available legal and tribal means.
Syrian regime’s reaction
Over the past several months, the Syrian government has remained silent about the Jordanian airstrikes. However, on Jan. 23, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing its “deep regret” over the airstrikes carried out by the Jordanian Air Force, adding that “such operations inside Syrian territory are unjustifiable.” The statement, published by the Syrian Arab News Agency, claimed that the Jordanian airstrikes had resulted in the death of “many civilians, including women and children,” adding that, “since 2011, Syria has suffered from an influx of tens of thousands of terrorists and the transfer of massive quantities of weapons originating from neighboring countries, including Jordan.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also stressed that the escalation in recent months is in contravention of agreements reached between the two countries on issues including drug trafficking, reiterated Syria’s “commitment to fight terrorism … [and] illicit drug trafficking and smuggling activities,” and noted that its efforts to reach out to the Jordanian government on issues like improving border security have “yet to receive a response.” Given the well-documented reports of the Syrian regime’s involvement in drug trafficking and smuggling activities in southern Syria, Damascus may find itself waiting a long time yet.
Mohammed Hassan is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Syria Program and a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Journalism in Paris. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies.
Photo by KHALIL MAZRAAWI/afp/AFP via Getty Images
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