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Nearly five months since Arab states extended an olive branch to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, there are signs that some key architects of the initiative may be increasingly skeptical about their commitment to the deal.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said this week that trafficking of the addictive amphetamine Captagon from Syria to Jordan has only increased after normalization talks that led to Assad’s return to the Arab League in May.
Syria was expelled from the Arab League in 2011, following a brutal regime crackdown on opposition forces seeking to overthrow Assad.
Jordan was one of the biggest supporters of his rehabilitation, being one of the main victims of drug trafficking in Syria, but now feels that the regime is unwilling or unable to take drastic measures against trafficking.
“Jordan is fighting on the border to make sure that drugs do not enter the country,” the king said last week on Al-Monitor. “Bashar (al-Assad) doesn’t want a conflict with Jordan… I don’t know if he has full control.”
One of the key demands that Arab states made of Syria in exchange for rehabilitation is that Assad help suppress trade in Captagon. The vast majority of the global supply of it in the $57 billion Captagon industry is believed to come from Syria, with neighboring countries and the Gulf region being its main destination.
Trade has turned Syria into a narco-state that has allowed the Assad regime to replenish its coffers after years of war and sanctions and given it enormous influence over its neighbors, and has been partly responsible for bringing them to the negotiating table. with Assad.
In another possible sign of Arab discontent with Assad, the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported this month that the Arab ministerial committee tasked with overseeing Arab-Syrian normalization froze its meetings with Damascus due to a lack of response to the prepared roadmap. normalize Arab-Syrian relations.
Hossam Zaki, deputy secretary general of the Arab League, however denied the reports. “They are not true,” Zaki told CNN on Friday.
Emile Hokayem, director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, said it is not surprising that Syria’s reintegration efforts are hitting a wall.
“Nothing substantial has been achieved while Assad has won a symbolic victory that limits Arab engagement for years to come,” Hokayem told CNN, adding that it is difficult to see how the May decision “could be reversed and how sticks can be deployed to compel compliance.”
In an interview with Sky News Arabia last month, the Syrian leader seemed confident and suggested he was in no rush to reconcile with his neighbors until they changed. He blamed the lack of progress in normalization with Arab nations on the incompetence of Arab politics. The Arabs, he said, are good at “optics,” but not at “implementation.”
Drug trafficking worsens with war, Assad said, so responsibility for the Captagon problem in Syria falls on the “countries that contributed to the chaos in Syria, and not on the Syrian state.” He added that it was Syria, and not its Arab neighbors, that proposed solving the drug crisis, as doing so is “mutually beneficial.”
Experts have said Syria’s rehabilitation process has been flawed.
“The problem is that there really is no mechanism for accountability in terms of the normalization initiative,” said HA Hellyer, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“If Assad simply ignores the demands of Arab states, even if he originally indicated he would take them seriously, there is no process that establishes a penalty for any violation,” Hellyer told CNN. “It’s all much more ad hoc and arbitrary.”
The Captagon trade is booming, Jordan says, with traffickers using increasingly advanced technology to smuggle the amphetamine out of Syria and into neighboring countries.
“The Syrians promised to work with us on that challenge, but the situation on the ground remains extremely challenging,” said Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi. “We see an increase in the number of operations and, consequently, we are doing what we have to do.”
Safadi described the Captagon trade as a “highly organized operation,” where drug traffickers “have access to very advanced technology,” including drones and night vision. For every two or three arrests, Safadi said, another two or three make it across the border.
Jordan, which shares a 378-kilometre-long border with Syria, views instability with its neighbor as detrimental to its own national security.
The Gulf states and Jordan routinely report drug busts, with massive quantities of drugs found in everything from building panels to shipments of baklava.
This month, the United Arab Emirates said it thwarted an attempt to smuggle 13 tons of Captagon – valued at more than $1 billion – hidden in a shipment of doors and decorative construction panels. Jordan’s armed forces routinely shoot down drones flying from Syria carrying amphetamines.
Experts say both ends of the Arab-Syrian normalization pact are failing to meet each other’s expectations. Assad may not have found a powerful enough incentive to abandon his lucrative drug business. And what he wants may be difficult to achieve.
“What Assad always wanted was not something that Arab states could or would offer: unconditional political support, massive financial assistance, as well as Arab pressure to lift Western sanctions,” Hokayem said.
Arab states may now find themselves backed into a corner.
“Their room for maneuver is limited,” Hokayem said. “Direct and direct coercion is off the table, and several countries do not care enough to spend effort and political capital in Syria,” he said, adding that Assad’s stubborn policy may even lead “some countries to simply give in.” “.