Jordan Alarmed by Escalation in Syrian Smuggling Tactics

Syria map showing major cities as well as parts of surrounding countries and the Mediterranean Sea.

“What were initially infiltration and smuggling attempts have evolved into full-fledged armed clashes, with the explicit objective of forcibly crossing the border by targeting Jordanian border guard forces.”

Jordanian authorities are signaling growing alarm over the willingness of smugglers from Syria to use armed force to circumvent tightened Jordanian border security. This comes at a delicate moment for the kingdom due to Israel’s campaign in Gaza, given Jordan’s large Palestinian population and concerns that Jordan could become a conduit for weapons to be smuggled into the West Bank. Smuggling has long been an economic mainstay for communities along the Syria-Jordan border, especially after the Syrian government lost control of key border crossings during the Syrian civil war. Since then, smuggling across the border has become increasingly institutionalized and largely controlled by networks within the Syrian Army’s 4th Division, many of them linked to Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. Concerns that potentially hostile armed groups control smuggling routes from Syria has led Jordan to tighten security across the shared border, in turn leading smugglers to seek new ways to circumvent border security. Recent reports and statements suggest that smuggling networks in Syria are increasingly willing to use force to get across the increasingly monitored border.

The first accompanying excerpt, from the Syrian opposition news website, explains how small-scale smuggling has “evolved into full-fledged armed clashes, with the explicit objective of forcibly crossing the border by targeting Jordanian border guard forces.” The article adds that Jordanian authorities are concerned about weapons being smuggled into the kingdom. Particularly noteworthy was a mid-December firefight in which a Jordanian border guard was killed, weapons were seized, and an airstrike took place on a purported smuggling safehouse inside Syrian territory, attributed to but not claimed by the Jordanian military. The second excerpt, also from, details the handful of weapons seized during the incident—a handful of rocket propelled grenades, mines, and sniper rifles. Although troubling from a Jordanian perspective, the small number of weapons were likely not part of the primary cargo being smuggled, but rather used by smugglers to force their way across the border. Instead, as the excerpt notes, the primary cargo was hashish and five million Captagon pills, likely destined for Saudi Arabia. The production and export of Captagon, a synthetic amphetamine-like substance—produced in Lebanon and Syria and consumed heavily in Gulf countries—has become a key part of Syria’s wartime economy.[i] The third accompanying excerpt, from the English-language Arab Weekly, claims that Jordan is inflating the threat from smugglers to “secure assistance and stronger cooperation” from Gulf countries, most prominently Saudi Arabia, the destination for much of the contraband. If evidence emerges that weapons are being smuggled across the border, concerns that these weapons could end up in the hands of Shia groups in Saudi Arabia would likely elicit a response from Riyadh. Smuggling along the Syria-Jordan border peaks in the cold winter months, due to the dense fog that often envelops the area at night, hampering visibility for those seeking to curb smugglers. While the seasonal uptick is expected, the increasing willingness of smugglers to engage in firefights with Jordanian border guards is concerning. The failure of increased Jordanian border security measures is a latent concern for Amman. Given that Iran and Hezbollah exert substantial influence over smuggling networks in Syria, the Syria-Jordan border may well become an additional regional flashpoint.


“Syrian-Jordanian Border Battle Ends With Airstrikes, Amman Hints at Iran’s Involvement,” (Syrian opposition news website) via The Syrian Observer (Syrian news aggregator), 20 December 2023.

What were initially infiltration and smuggling attempts have evolved into full-fledged armed clashes, with the explicit objective of forcibly crossing the border by targeting Jordanian border guard forces…

This form of military operations and clashes underscores the significant challenges confronting Jordan due to the Syrian regime and the escalating influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. Despite the security measures and military tightening implemented by Amman along the Syrian-Jordanian border, smuggling operations have not only persisted but have also intensified. A particularly alarming security threat arising from these clashes is the initiation of arms and rocket smuggling operations, underscoring the extent of Iranian pressure on Jordan.

“حرب وقتلى” على الحدود السورية الأردنية..رسائل وتحذيرات وخيارات مفتوحة

War and death’ on the Syrian-Jordanian border… messages, warnings, and open options,” (Syrian opposition news website), 19 December 2023.

The Jordanian army seized about five million Captagon pills and about 13,000 hashish palms, in addition to 4 Rocket Launcher missiles, 4 RPG missiles, 10 anti-personnel mines, a G3 sniper rifle, and a M-16 type rifle equipped with a sniper scope.

“Is Jordan inflating smugglers’ threat on border with Syria?” The Arab Weekly (London-based Arabic-language weekly), 19 December 2023. Observers believe however that Jordan is exaggerating the developments in the border region, pointing out that the phenomenon of active gangs is not new and that most countries suffer from it. Jordan is not an exception, especially since the neighbouring country, Syria, is gripped by security chaos, observers told The Arab Weekly. They suggest the exaggeration may be related to Jordan’s desire to present itself regionally, especially to the Arab Gulf countries, as the first line of defence for regional security. The aim, according to observers, is to secure assistance and stronger cooperation.


[i] For more on the Captagon trade, see: Lucas Winter, “Pharmaceutical Drugs and the Syrian War,” OE Watch, December 2015. and Lucas Winter, “Syria Becoming Center of Illicit Drug Production and Export to Europe and Arabian Peninsula,” OE Watch, January 2021.

Image Information:

Image:  Syria map showing major cities as well as parts of surrounding countries and the Mediterranean Sea.
Source: CIA Factbook, Attribution: Public Domain

Syrian Regime, Opposition Wary of Hamas Despite Support for 7 October Attacks on Israel

Damage in Gaza Strip during the October 2023

“Syrians received the news of the operation as a historic, heroic act that was able to break the prestige of the Israeli occupier…”

On the surface, Hamas seems to enjoy widespread support in Syria among backers of both the government and the anti-government Sunni Arab opposition.[i] Media outlets associated with each side have used laudatory rhetoric to describe the 7 October Hamas “al-Aqsa Flood” operation. The first accompanying excerpt from the anti-Syrian-government news website Syria TV,describes the Hamas raid as “a source of pride for the Arab and Islamic nation in every sense of the word.” The second excerpt, from the pro-Syrian government daily al-Watan, states that Hamas’ raid “will be recorded in history in golden letters that time will not erase.” In addition to widespread support for the operation itself, outlets affiliated with both the Syrian regime and the opposition strongly oppose Israel’s military actions in Gaza. Thus, according to the author of the third accompanying excerpt from the Qatar-aligned al-Araby al-Jadeed, events in Gaza have forged the first “consensus among the various components of the Syrian people…since the beginning of the revolution.” And yet, while they agree with the operation, the Syrian government and its opposition also concur in being wary of Hamas. Hamas was an ally of the Syrian government until 2012, when it broke with Damascus and sided with members of the Syrian rebellion. In 2017, however, Hamas’s new leadership steered the group back into the pro-Iran camp, and in 2022, Hamas formally reconciled with the Syrian government.[ii] Many in the Syrian opposition resent Hamas’s return to supporting the Syrian government, as expressed in the fourth accompanying excerpt from the Syrian opposition news website SyriaDirect. Similarly, the Syrian government remains skeptical of Hamas despite their recent rapprochement. Last August, Syrian President Assad accused Hamas’ leadership of “betrayal” for siding with Syrian rebels and against his government for much of the 2010s.[iii] Indeed, since the “al-Aqsa Flood” attack on 7 October, the Assad government has taken steps to remove military assets from areas near the border with Israel, in a sign that it seeks to avoid becoming militarily entangled on Hamas’ side.[iv] This shared perspective between the Syrian government and opposition – widespread support for the  “al-Aqsa Flood” operation, strong opposition to Israeli military activity in Gaza, and a general distrust of Hamas – is likely generalizable to other segments of the broader Arab public.


طوفان الأقصى وأسطورة الجيش الذي لا يقهر 

Fayez al-Asmar. “Al-Aqsa Flood and the myth of the invincible army,” Syria TV (Syrian opposition news website), 12 October 2023.طوفان-الأقصى-وأسطورة-الجيش-الذي-لا-يقهر 

In fact, the Hamas operation is an unprecedented military operation in terms of size and method of implementation in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and it in itself is a source of pride for the Arab and Islamic nation in every sense of the word. 

بين «طوفان الأقصى» والطوفان الجارف 

Rifaat Badawi. “Between the al-Aqsa Flood and the torrential flood,” Al-Watan (pro-government Syrian daily), 10 October 2023.بين-طوفان-الأقصى-والطوفان-الجارف/

The “Al-Aqsa Flood” operation will be recorded in history in golden letters that time will not erase, because it will remain engraved in the memory of the Palestinian and Arab generations who believe in resisting and defeating the Israeli occupation, for all of Palestine, from the river to the sea, and its capital will be Holy Jerusalem, no matter how many sacrifices are made and no matter how long it takes.

غزة التي وحدت السوريين

“Gaza, which unified Syrians,” al-Araby al-Jadeed (Qatari-aligned daily), 15 October 2023.غزة-التي-وحدت-السوريين

The “Al-Aqsa Flood” operation and the subsequent Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip formed a consensus among the various components of the Syrian people, with all their affiliations, the first of its kind since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. At the popular level, in all opposition-controlled areas, and in diaspora countries, Syrians received the news of the operation as a historic, heroic act that was able to break the prestige of the Israeli occupier.

من إدلب هنا غزة: السوريون يشاركون الفلسطينيين آلامهم ويستذكرون مأساتهم

“From Idlib to Gaza: Syrians share the pain of the Palestinians and remember their tragedy,” Syria Direct (Syrian opposition news website), 21 October 2023.من-إدلب-هنا-غزة-السوريون-يشاركون-الفلس/

Many Syrians feel let down by the Hamas movement, which restored relations with the Syrian regime in 2022, after ten years of estrangement that began when it left Damascus in February 2012. This in addition to Hamas’s close relations with Iran, the regime’s main ally in suppressing Syrians who protested against Assad in the spring of 2011, demanding freedom. However, their position on Hamas did not affect their sympathy for the Palestinian cause and support for the people of Gaza, as expressed by a number of sources who spoke to Syria Direct.


[i] For additional context see: “Syrians’ Reactions to the First Weeks of Israel-Hamas War,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy-Fikra Forum, 24 October 2023.

[ii] For additional details on Hamas in the region, see: Lucas Winter. “Hamas Rejoins the Resistance Axis,” OE Watch, December 2017.

[iii] “After Assad Insulted its Leaders, Hamas to Open Office in Damascus,” Syrian Observer, 15 August 2023.

[iv] “Al-Assad Was Absent from Nasrallah’s Speech,” Syrian Observer, 10 November 2023.

Image Information:

Image:  Damage in Gaza Strip during the October 2023
Source: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages,
Attribution: CC BY-SA 3.0

Russian Arctic Naval Activity and Capability Continue To Expand

The Knyaz Oleg arrives at the Northern Fleet in February 2022. The Knyaz Oleg is the fifth Borei-class submarine on active duty.

“Each of the Borei submarines can carry 16 ballistic Bulava missiles, each armed with 4 to 10 nuclear warheads.”

Despite the fighting in Ukraine, a military commitment in Syria, and Western sanctions, Russia continues to test new strategic systems and expand its Northern Fleet[i]—but not without a few hiccups. According to the excerpted article from Norway-based The Barents Observer, a Russian Borei-class strategic ballistic missile firing submarine, the Imperator Aleksandr III, is currently undergoing sea trials in the Arctic. The Imperator Aleksandr III is the seventh Borei-class [R1] submarine in operation with three more under construction and an additional two planned, for a total of twelve. The article notes that the Imperator Aleksandr III launched a Bulava strategic missile across the Russian Arctic from the White Sea to Kamchatka as part of its sea trials.[ii] The article also notes that a nuclear triad exercise on 25 October featured a canceled Bulava launch. According to the second excerpt, from the Russian Telegram channel Sirena, there have been six failed or canceled missile tests since June 2023. Despite the setbacks, and if a Bulava ballistic missile was fired from the Imperator Aleksandr III, Russia would continue to improve its missile capabilities and advance its strategic power in the Arctic.


Thomas Nilsen, “Newest submarine launched Bulava [R1] missile from White Sea,”

The Barents Observer (independent Norwegian news site in Russian and English currently blocked in Russia), 5 November 2023.

It was Sunday morning, 5 November, when the Defense Ministry in Moscow reported that the Imperator Aleksandr III was sailing under the surface in the White Sea and launched a Bulava. A few minutes after breaking the surface in Russia’s northwestern region, the missile hit the designated target at the Kura range on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The Imperator Aleksandr III (K-554) was launched in December last year from the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk and has since been undergoing state trials at sea and while at berth at the yard.

The submarine is the 7th Borei-class submarine and will likely be transferred to the Navy before New Year. Like the sixth submarine in the class, Generalissimus Suvorov, also the Imperator Aleksandr III will cross under the Arctic ice and sail for Russia’s Pacific Fleet.

Each of the Borei submarines can carry 16 ballistic Bulava missiles, each armed with 4 to 10 nuclear warheads. Three more subs of the class are currently under construction in Severodvinsk, and two more are planned, but no contracts have been signed.

When Russia tested its nuclear deterrence triad on October 25, the only submarine-launched ballistic missile fired was an older Sineava, fired from the Northern Fleet’s Delta-IV class Tula in the Barents Sea.

“Шесть испытаний российских ракет отменились или провалились с июня (Six Russian missile tests have been canceled or failed since June). Sirena (Russian Telegram Channel), 1 November 2023.

Since June 30, 2023, at least six unsuccessful rocket tests have taken place in Russia, a source at one of the rocket and space industry enterprises told Sirena . Some launches failed altogether. Here are the details:

On June 30, the Poseidon device was tested unsuccessfully – an underwater nuclear torpedo that should hit coastal areas, ships and naval bases. According to our source, the cooling sensor showed a lack of coolant, the reactor did not start, and the Poseidon was thrown out of the shaft, after which it sank. The next launch was planned for late October – early November, but it has been postponed.

On August 30, the third launch of the Sarmat complex did not take place. It was postponed due to a failure in the missile’s centralized control system, Sirena’s interlocutor claims.

On October 25, “presidential launches” took place – Putin led the tests. The Kremlin then stated that all the objectives of the exercises had been completed. Our source says that the Yars missile fell during the second stage of flight, and the Bulava launch was canceled at the last moment.

On October 31, the next Sarmat launch failed because the telemetry system failed. According to the source, this was explained by a mistake by the maintenance staff.

Today, the Sarmat fell 77 seconds into the flight, 300 kilometers from the launch site. This already happened to the complex in February. Test participants do not have clear versions of why something goes wrong.In September, the head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, said that the Sarmat complexes were put on combat duty. Sirena’s source believes that the Russian authorities were “obviously in a hurry” with this.


[i] It was previously reported that the Northern Fleet is expanding its capability by acquiring ice-class minesweepers for their Arctic waters.  See: Atle Staalesen, “Three ships of Russia’s new class of minesweepers are being built for Arctic waters,” The Barents Observer (independent Norwegian news site in Russian and English currently blocked in Russia), 22 June 2023.

[ii] For more information on the Bulava nuclear capable submarine launched ballistic missile see: RSM-56 Bulava (SS-N-32), MissileThreat, CSIS Missile Defense Project, CSIS, 2 August 2021.

Image Information:

Image: The Knyaz Oleg arrives at the Northern Fleet in February 2022. The Knyaz Oleg is the fifth Borei-class submarine on active duty.
Source: – /media/File:K-552_at_Northern_fleet.jpg
Attribution: CC by 4.0

Russian Influence Fades in Southern Syria

A Druze man photographed in Suweida Syria, 2008.

“In the last two years, the decline of the Russian role within Syrian territories has become clear…”

Russia’s fading presence and loss of influence in southern Syria was on display during recent antiregime protests by the ethnoreligious Druze minority group in the Syrian province of Suweida.[i] As of mid-September, the protests had been going on for over a month. Russia, which had previously mediated between the regime and the Druze, was nowhere to be seen.[ii] Suweida’s protest movement—which has ebbed and flowed throughout the civil war—was motivated by longstanding deterioration in living conditions.

A prominent Druze leader, speaking to protesters who had been injured by regime forces in mid-September, placed blame for the unrest on local Iranian agents and allies. As reported in the first excerpt, from the Lebanese news website al-Modon, he accused them of stealing Syrian wealth and brainwashing its citizens with a “subversive” ideology. Russia’s absence from the volatile situation in Suweida is as noteworthy as are the strident accusations made against Iran and its local allies. In 2018, Russia had established itself as an effective mediator between the Syrian regime and Sunni rebels from Daraa, the province immediately to the west of Suweida. Russia did so by bringing rebel factions into a Russia-controlled proxy force known as the “5th Corps.” Two years ago, as reported in the second accompanying excerpt, from Qatar’s al-Jazeera, Russia began handing control of its southern proxies to the Syrian regime, and Iran took advantage of this situation through its influence in Syrian Military Intelligence and the Syrian Army’s 4th Division.[iii] Druze discontent with Iran’s influence rose due to Iranian proxies and allies in the regime extracting scarce resources from Suweida’s economy—including lucrative cross-border smuggling routes into Jordan and the Gulf. In 2022, a group of Druze leaders sought Russian assistance in curbing Iran’s local influence, on the assumption that Russia maintained sway in this part of Syria. In response, Russia sent a group of lowly military police with no decision-making powers, in what was a clear hint of waning Russian influence.[iv] The situation has only become starker with the Suweida protest movement. Indeed, as of mid-September, the Kremlin had made no official statement on the protests in Suweida, and Russian government-linked media blamed them on the United States, as noted in the third accompanying excerpt, also from al-Modon. The Kremlin is no longer able to provide even the illusion of influence in this part of Syria. Iran, for its part, appears to have solidified its influence in the south, but in doing so has made itself increasingly unpopular.


“السويداء:الهجري يدعو للجهاد ضد إيران وميليشياتها..بعد استهداف المتظاهرين بالرصاص

(Suweida: al-Hajiri calls for jihad against Iran and its militias… after protesters shot at),” al-Modon (Lebanese news website), 13 September 2023.

He considered that the “security movement” that opened fire on demonstrators in Suwayda was the product of the “corrupt” security services that have been tampering with Syria for years, stressing that the demonstrators should not be drawn into the plan of these agencies to attack the people of Suwayda…

He considered that the authority in Iran is “racist and corrupt” and entered Syria in order to “steal the country and its wealth and change people’s minds in a direction they are not convinced of,” stressing that Iran, its militias, and the Lebanese Hezbollah are “occupiers and we do not accept their presence in Syria…and we announce this publicly.”

كعكة الأسد.. هل يقوي مقتل بريغوجين نفوذ إيران في سوريا؟

(Assad’s cake… will the killing of Prigozhin strengthen Iranian influence in Syria),” al-Jazeera (Qatari news outlet), 6 September 2023.صراع-حول-كعكة-الأسد-هل-يقوي-مقتل

In the last two years, the decline of the Russian role within Syrian territories has become clear. This was not limited to the disappearance of Russian hopes for reaching a political solution to the war that has been going on for more than ten years, but it also amounted to cutting off Russian support for many of Moscow’s agents in Syria…

The Iranians took advantage of this opportunity in order to remove Russia relatively from the scene and capture former proxies whom the Kremlin could no longer support militarily and financially. This happened with the Syrian regime’s Eighth Brigade, one of the most loyal units to Russia within the armed forces in southern Syria, which was reduced. Russia halved the salaries of its members, and in 2022 it completely stopped communicating with the brigade, which prompted the brigade to work for the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate, one of Iran’s most powerful agents. At the same time, the National Defense Forces militias east of Deir ez-Zor, led by Hassan al-Ghadhban, separated from Moscow. In favor of the Iranian-backed Fourth Division, after Moscow failed to pay the salaries of the members for a full six months.

“موسكو تقرأ إنتفاضة السويداء..من لبنان

(Moscow reads the Suweida uprising… from Lebanon),” al-Modon (Lebanese news website), 5 September 2023.

Although more than two weeks have passed since the Suweida uprising, the Kremlin remains silent about it. 

What is relatively new this time in accusing the West of being behind the Suweida uprising is the claim of an American plan to destabilize the region by controlling the network of financial flows linked to the crisis in the Lebanese banking system…

On the first of this month, the Topwar website, which is linked to the Russian Ministry of Defense, published a text regarding the Suwayda uprising entitled “The Syrian Protests and the US Strategy in Lebanon”…


[i] The Druze are an esoteric, monotheistic ethnoreligious group that constitute 3 percent of Syria’s population, concentrated in Suweida Province. There are also Druze communities on the Syria-Israel border and in Lebanon. Unlike neighboring Sunni-majority Daraa Province—the heartland of Syria’s rebellion—the Druze-majority province of Suweida carved out an effective position of neutrality in Syria’s civil war. By staking out a neutral position, the Druze effectively became “strategic bedfellows” of the Assad regime. See: Fabrice Balanche. “The Druze and Assad: Strategic Bedfellows,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 20 October 2016.

[ii] See for instance: “Syrian government releases detainees with Russian mediation in Syria’s Suwayda,” North Press Agency, 11 July 2020.

[iii] For more see: Lucas Winter. ”Growing Iranian Influence Near the Border with Israel in Southwest Syria,” OE Watch, March 2021.

[iv] Key Druze leaders refused to meet with the powerless Russian delegation, which consisted of military police. See: Sources: Eight Demands to Russian Delegation in Suweida,” (Syrian opposition news website) via The Syrian Observer (Syrian media aggregator), 9 August 2022. and

السويداء: حركة رجال الكرامة ترفض استقبال وفد روسي

“Suweida: Men of Dignity refuses to meet Russian delegation,” al-Araby al-Jadeed (Qatari-aligned daily), 10 August 2022.

Image Information:

Image: A Druze man photographed in Suweida Syria, 2008.
Source: CharlesFred, Flickr,
Attribution: CC 2.0

Iran’s Supreme Leader Accuses West of Ukraine War Conspiracy

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran, July 19, 2022.

“The Ukrainians fight and get killed so that weapons can be sold.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Iran initially professed neutrality; however, this official neutrality did not last long.[i] In July 2022, Putin visited Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Khamenei unequivocally endorsed Russia’s invasion stating, “If you [Russia] had not taken the helm, the other side would have done so and initiated a war.” In the below-excerpted speech featured on Khamenei’s website,, the Supreme Leader provided more insight into his thinking about Ukraine. Khamenei sees the Ukraine war within the context of his own worldview in which all evils originate in the West. Specifically, he embraces the belief the military-industrial complex shapes all policy in Washington, stating: “The Ukrainians fight and get killed so that [American] weapons can be sold, so that Europe is forced to buy their [American] weapons, so the arms-producing companies can produce and sell weapons and fill their pockets.” Interestingly, his embrace of Russia weakens a main pillar of the Islamic Revolution during the Cold War, which is that Iran would rely on “neither East nor West,” both of which revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini believed to be equally exploitive. Instead, the tenet holds that Iran is best served by an independent foreign policy.[ii] Additionally, Khamenei asserted that the United States seeks to steal Syrian oil. He claimed: “A government like that of the United States is stealing oil from Syria and is doing it openly in plain view of everybody.” This assertion shows his embrace of another conspiracy theory and suggests that Iran could be an impediment to any reconciliation between the Syrian regime and the predominantly Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in whose territory the United States bases a small force. AANES currently controls many of Syria’s oil fields.


“Biyanat dar Didar Mobleghin va Talab-e Hawzehha-ye ‘Ilmeah Saresar Keshvar” (Statement to a gathering of seminary students and missionaries from across the country),” (official website of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei), 12 July 2023.

Today, they are willing to push the poor, helpless nation of Ukraine forward to fill the pockets of American arms-producing companies. That is what is happening. That is the case in Ukraine. The Ukrainians fight and get killed so that weapons can be sold, so that Europe is forced to buy their weapons, so the arms-producing companies can produce and sell weapons and fill their pockets. They are the same. They want to steal Syria’s oil and they are stealing it. People imagine a thief to be an inferior, lowly person. A government like that of the United States is stealing oil from Syria and is doing it openly in plain view of everybody! They are the same, they have not changed.


[i] For an earlier discussion of Iran’s history and the development of Iran-Russia relations, see: Michael Rubin, “Iranian Influence Extends to the Mediterranean,” OE Watch, September 2018.

[ii] For example, see: Michael Rubin, “Will Iran Pivot to the East?” OE Watch, September 2018.

Image Information:

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran, July 19, 2022.
Source : ?ts=1669631151000

Russian North Sea Fleet Deputy Commander Killed in Nagorno-Karabakh

Map of the 2023 Nagorno-Karabakh war showing Azerbaijan day-to-day advances as of 22 September 2023.

“This was a man who belonged to the fleet, and even though he was a political officer, what did he do down there [Nagorno Karabakh]?”

Attrition continues within Russia’s officer corps as Russian commanders die on the battlefield, even beyond Ukraine and Syria.[i] According to the Norway-based news outlet The Barents Observer, deputy commander and political officer of Russia’s Northern Fleet submarine forces, Ivan Kovgan, was killed in Nagorno-Karabakh on 20 September.[ii] The article noted that Kovgan was deployed to the disputed region as the deputy commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent. Kovgan’s SUV reportedly was struck by Azeri artillery, killing him and four other Russian servicemembers. It is unclear whether the strike on the Russian peacekeepers’ vehicle was intentional or a mistake as a result of the fog of war. In any case, the event prompted an immediate apology from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev to Russian President Putin and the promise of an investigation. The article also noted that residents of the Kola Peninsula, where Kovgan resided, were shocked that he would have even been selected to serve in Nagorno-Karabakh. While units from the Russian Northern Fleet have been deployed to Ukraine, some with catastrophic consequences,[iii] the death of Kovgan while on a less-risky peacekeeping mission is an unexpected blow. Russia has lost many high-ranking officers in Ukraine, and losing another senior officer in far-off Nagorno-Karabakh is costly.


Atle Staalesen, “Deputy Commander of Russia’s Northern Fleed submarine forces is killed in Nagorno-Karabakh,” The Barents Observer (Norway based naval news focused news source), 22 September 2023.

Kovgan was only days away from completing his assignment in the disputed territories between Armenia and Azerbaijan when his car came under attack. He and four more Russian servicemen were killed.

A photo reportedly taken on the site of the attack shows a Russian military SUV type UAZ Patriot that has crashed into a rocky hillside. At least four bodies can be seen in and around the vehicle.

The lethal attack came from Azerbaijani forces and took place on the 20th of September as part of a major onslaught on Armenia-backed forces in the region. It is reported to have taken place near the settlement of Canyataq in the northeastern corner of the self-proclaimed republic.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev in a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin the following day apologised for the killings and assured that an investigation will be initiated and the guilty troops punished.

But for many locals in Gadzhievo it appear a mystery that a top officer from the Northern Fleet’s submarine forces was on duty in the far-away Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Who sent this first rank captain to that place???” a man writes in a comment on local social media in Gadzhievo. “This was a man that belongs to the fleet, and even though he was a political officer, what did he do down there??? After all, he was our naval political officer with both body and mind!” he underlines.Ivan Kovgan had reportedly been two months in Nagorno-Karabakh when he was killed. He was serving as Deputy Commander of the so-called peacekeeping forces that have been deployed in the area since the second Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020. Back home in the Kola Peninsula he was Deputy Commander of the Northern Fleet’s submarine forces with responsibility for military-political operations.


[i] Russia has lost several senior officers in Syria since 2016, including most recently Colonel Oleg Pechevisty, who was killed in May 2023. See: Isabel Van Brugen, “Russian Colonel Killed After Direct Strike on His Command Post – Reports,” Newsweek, 29 May 2023. and “Администрация Подпорожского района (Administration of Podporozhye district),” ВКонтакте (InKontact) Russian online social media and social networking service based in Saint Petersburg). 27 May 2023.

[ii] For additional information from the Russian perspective on the renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and presence of Russian peacekeepers, see: Kirill Strelnikov, “Прощание с Карабахом: уроки трагедии с двумя стульями (Farewell to Karabakh: lessons from the tragedy with two chairs),” RIANovosti (state-owned domestic Russian media outlet), 21 September 2023.; “Messages appeared on the Internet about an attack by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces on a warehouse of Russian Peacekeepers, Top War (English language Russian military news focused media website, part of Military Review (Военное Обозрение)), 23 September 2023.

[iii] The 200th is one of two Arctic infantry units subordinate to the Northern Military District’s 14th Army Corps, the 14th Army Corps is Ground Forces unit subordinate to the navy command, and as part of the Northern Military District it is subordinate to the Northern Fleet. For an investigative news piece on the fate of the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade in Ukraine see: “‘Wiped Out’: War in Ukraine has decimated a once feared Russian brigade,” The Washington Post, 16 December 2022.

Image Information:

Image: Map of the 2023 Nagorno-Karabakh war showing Azerbaijan day-to-day advances as of 22 September 2023.
Attribution: CCA SA 4.0 Int

Syrian Regime Forces Increase UAV Use Along Jordanian Border

An Ababil-3 UAV at an Iranian arms expo on Kish Island in November 2016.

“Iran has transferred many dual-use drones, with surveillance and bombing capabilities, to Daraa Governorate.”

Reported unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) use by Syrian regime forces and their allies along the border with Jordan has noticeably increased. Jordanian authorities claimed that they had intercepted at least five small drones smuggling weapons and/or illicit substances from Syria between June and mid-August 2023.[i] Two reports from Syrian opposition sources provide context to the recent uptick in UAV use by Syrian regime forces and their allies. The first accompanying excerpt, published by the Horan Free Gathering, an opposition group in southern Syria, stated that UAVs have been used to smuggle drugs since at least 2018, when the conflict was frozen in southern Syria. Recent clampdowns along the land border have prompted smugglers to rely more heavily on UAVs. The article claims that Iran has transferred several combat UAVs to Syrian forces in Daraa, making them “the regime’s new weapon in the province.” The second accompanying report, from the Syrian opposition media channel Syria TV, provides details on two recent Syrian regime UAV strikes against rebel leaders in Daraa Province. Per the report, both attacks were conducted at night using Iranian Ababil drones, and neither attack appears to have succeeded against its primary target, only causing damage to buildings. The reports note that the Ababil UAVs fly quietly at low altitudes and rely on human-planted targeting devices. While Iranian-backed regime forces have employed UAVs throughout the conflict, the uptick in their use in southern Syria is notable and likely to cause concern in neighboring Jordan and Israel.


“بين تهريب المخدرات والعمليات الأمنية.. الطائرات المسيرة وسيلة النظام الجديدة

(From Drug Smuggling to Security Operations… UAVs are the Regime’s New Method),” 19 July 2023, Horan Free Gathering (southern Syria opposition group),

The regime’s use of small drones to smuggle drugs is not new. Since the settlement process in southern Syria at the end of July 2018, it began to use to smuggle drugs to Jordan, mainly high-value cocaine and “crystal,” in addition to smuggling some light weapons and ammunition…

A source for the Free Horan Gathering confirmed that Iran has transferred many dual-use drones, with surveillance and bombing capabilities, to Daraa Governorate, and has trained officers and members of the Syrian regime forces on using them, making it the regime’s new weapon in the province.

“الطائرات المسيّرة في درعا.. تكتيك عسكري جديد يوسع نفوذ إيران في سوريا

(UAVs in Daraa… New Military Tactic Expands Iranian Influence in Daraa),” Syria TV (Syrian opposition media network), 4 August 2023.

From the beginning of last July until the second of August, 6 sorties were recorded by Ababil drones, west of Daraa, all of them flying after dark, according to what an informed source told Syria TV. On August 1, a drone targeted the house of the young man, Amjad Al-Mizal, in the town of Al-Yadoudah, west of Daraa, without recording any casualties. Abu Malik al-Zoubi, 35 years old, from the city of Tafas, west of Daraa, who witnessed the bombing of a house in the city on the 24th of last July, told Syria TV that an Ababil-2 drone targeted the house of journalist Muhannad al-Zoubi after midnight with a shell containing high explosives, causing substantial damage to the house…He added that these planes do not make a sound while flying in the area, and sometimes they do not emit light, and they fly at low altitudes to accurately hit their target…
A leading source in the opposition factions told Syria TV that officers from the Fourth Division recently supervised training operations for regime members on the use of drones at the headquarters of the Fifth Division in the city of Izraa in rural Daraa. The training included dozens of members of the regime’s army and its security services and aimed to improve their drone-handling capabilities, according to the commander. He added that the training focused on Iranian-made Ababil 2 and Ababil 3 drones, including those made locally, in addition to Quadcopters used by local militias to smuggle expensive crystal meth and cocaine to the Kingdom of Jordan and Arab countries.


[i] Jordanian authorities also reported other UAV interceptions earlier in 2023. In May, a Jordanian airstrike killed a prominent drug dealer in Syrian territory. For more on “Captagon,” the key illicit substance smuggled from Syria, see: Lucas Winter, “Pharmaceutical Drugs and the Syrian War,” OE Watch,December 2015. 

Image Information:

Image:  An Ababil-3 UAV at an Iranian arms expo on Kish Island in November 2016.
Attribution: CC 4.0

Iran Ready To Help Syria Rebuild Its Defense Infrastructure

Iranian Defense Minister Mohammed Reza-Ashtiani meets with Abdul Karim Mahmoud Ibrahim, Chief of General Staff of the Syrian Army, 10 May 2023

Iranian Defense Minister Mohammed Reza-Ashtiani meets with Abdul Karim Mahmoud Ibrahim, Chief of General Staff of the Syrian Army, 10 May 2023.

“Iran is now ready to use its capacities and capabilities to rebuild and contribute to the development of the infrastructure of the Syrian defense industry.”

The 12-year-old Syrian civil war appears to be nearing its end. As the Arab League re-embraces Syria and the international community begins to discuss reconstruction,[i] an opportunity from which Iran also seeks to profit,[ii] the Iranian Ministry of Defense also seeks to rebuild and reconstruct Syria’s military, according to the excerpted news story from Iran’s Holy Defense News Agency. While neither Tehran nor Damascus have yet reported an agreement for Iran to rebuild the Syrian military, the Iranian government expects repayment for its military investment in and dispatch of volunteers and advisers to Syria during the war.[iii] The recent visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Syria, among other bilateral visits and exchanges, suggest that cementing and augmenting the Iran-Syria axis is a strategic priority for Tehran. From the Iranian perspective, helping rebuild Syria’s defense sector achieves two goals. Strategically, it advances Iran’s goal of militarily eliminating Israel as a Jewish state, while operationally, it provides an important revenue stream for Iran’s domestic military industries.


“Amir Ashtiani: Amadegi Iran baraye komak beh Tawseah Zirsakht-e Sanaea’-e Defah-e Suriyah (Amir Ashtiani: Iran Ready to Help Develop Infrastructure for Syrian Defense Industry ),” Holy Defense News Agency (official news agency of Iran’s Defense Ministry), 10 May 2023.

Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, met with Lieutenant-General Abdel Karim Mahmoud Ibrahim, Chief of the General Staff of the Syrian Army. While commemorating the memory of General Haj Qasem Soleimani as a martyr in the fight against terrorism and for the security of the Syrian people and the region, Ashtiani stated, “Relations between the two countries are experiencing one of the best periods in their history. We have a strategic agreement, but this is rooted in our brotherly relations.”

The Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, stating that the recent visit of the Iranian president to Damascus and his welcome by the Syrian government and people indicates deep bilateral relations, added, “This trip and its agreements as well as the issues I discussed with the Syrian Defense Minister in Moscow and Damascus are on the agenda….”Ashtiani, emphasizing the work of the Joint Commission on Defense-Technical Cooperation between the two countries, said, “Be sure, the Ministry of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran is now ready to use its capacities and capabilities to rebuild and contribute to the development of the infrastructure of the Syrian defense industry, just as it stood alongside the Syrian armed forces during the war against terrorism.”


[i] Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime controls much of the country except for some northern districts occupied by Turkish forces or their proxies, and the far northeast of the county in which Kurds have established an autonomous administration. The war’s destruction has been vast. A quarter of the country’s population has fled creating a refugee crisis in surrounding counties, and many are Syrians are displaced inside Syria. In some towns, rocket strikes, battle damage, and looting by various militias and armies has rendered upward of 90 percent of the structures uninhabitable.

[ii] For example, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran’s Proposal To Build Railroads and Housing in Syria could Enrich IRGC” OE Watch, 11-2022.

[iii] For example, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran: Basij Recruiting for Syria Fight” OE Watch, March 2016.

Image Information:

Image: Iranian Defense Minister Mohammed Reza-Ashtiani meets with Abdul Karim Mahmoud Ibrahim, Chief of General Staff of the Syrian Army, 10 May 2023
Attribution: Iranian Students’ News Agency

Iran Capitalizing on Post-Earthquake Conditions To Deepen Influence in Syria

Aleppo in the war (2016).

Aleppo in the war (2016).

… Local media sources also indicated that the excavation machinery of the Iranian IRGC-affiliated ‘Khatam al-Anbiya’ company began demolishing a number of residential buildings in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, under the pretext that they were cracked as a result of the earthquake…”

On 6 February, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck near the Syria-Turkish border, damaging and destroying countless structures in surrounding areas and killing more than 50,000 people. The Syrian province of Aleppo was especially hard hit, with damages estimated as high as $3.2 billion, mostly in the eponymous provincial capital.[i]  Iran and its allied Iraqi factions from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have provided much publicized assistance to parts of Aleppo, in ways that are likely to deepen their influence among the local population.  The accompanying excerpt, from the Syrian opposition news website Enab Baladi, highlights a visit to Aleppo by Ismail Qaani, Qasim Soleimani’s successor as head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.  Qaani was the first foreign official to visit Syria after the earthquake, and his visit to Aleppo preceded that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by two days. When al-Assad finally went to Aleppo, he met briefly with Abdel Aziz al-Muhammadawi (a.k.a. Abu Fadak), the head of PMF, who was there to oversee PMF post-earthquake assistance in Aleppo.  Like his predecessor, who was killed in the same strike that killed Soleimani, al-Muhammadawi is considered a close Quds Force ally.  According to the Enab Baladi report, al-Assad thanked al-Muhammadawi and his organization for their humanitarian assistance.  Iranian-backed entities are now seeking government permits to rebuild parts of the city, as they have across the war-ravaged suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus in recent years.[ii]  The second accompanying excerpt, from the Qatari-aligned daily al-Araby al-Jadeed, explains how the IRGC-linked construction company Khatam al-Anbiya had demolished some buildings in eastern Aleppo and sought to lay the foundations for a future bastion of Iranian support in the area.

Other media reports have speculated that Iran also has used post-earthquake humanitarian aid as a cover to transfer weapons to Syria. The Israeli government was quick to warn of this possibility, and in early March, it bombed Aleppo airport, targeting purported Iranian drones being stored there.  As noted in the accompanying article, from the Saudi-aligned daily Independent Arabia, there are conflicting reports about what exactly was targeted, with some sources claiming it was drones transferred from a nearby, recently rehabilitated airbase that is now under Russian control (al-Jarrah), and others claiming it involved weapons brought in by land and air under the cover of humanitarian assistance.  Regardless, the strikes led to a temporary halt in operations at Aleppo’s airport, forcing a diversion of humanitarian aid flights and prompting UN and government officials to warn of dire humanitarian consequences.[iii]


“الحشد الشعبي” يضغط على النظام في حلب بشقق سكنية لمتضرري الزلزال

(PMF pressures the regime in Aleppo via apartment buildings for earthquake victims,)” Enab Baladi (Syrian opposition news website), 28 February 2023.

On February 8, Ismail Qaani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, visited Aleppo where he inspected earthquake victims’ conditions and supervised the work of Iranian rescuers at rubble-clearing sites, according to the Iranian Mehr News Agency. He was the first foreign official to arrive in Syria after the earthquake, and appeared in Aleppo two days before the head of the regime arrived in the city…

The researcher on Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, explained that Iranian activity in Syria falls within two tracks, political and military…On the military level, the cargo planes that land in Aleppo and Damascus may be loaded with precision-strike missile technology and drones, although they were not bombed by Israel… this is a major military track that can be exploited under the guise of aid.

“إيران تعزز وجودها في حلب بذريعة مساعدة منكوبي الزلزال

(Iran strengthens its presence in Aleppo on the pretext of helping earthquake victims),” al-Araby al-Jadeed (Qatari-aligned daily), 4 March 2023.

Local media sources also indicated that the excavation machinery of the Iranian IRGC-affiliated “Khatam al-Anbiya” company began demolishing a number of residential buildings in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, under the pretext that they were cracked as a result of the earthquake… the Reconstruction Office of the Khatam al-Anbiya Company offered to buy homes as-is from owners of earthquake-damaged or even undamaged homes in these eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo.

“ما السياق الإقليمي لضربات إسرائيل ضد إيران في سوريا؟

(What is the regional context for Israel’s strikes against Iran in Syria?)” Independent Arabia (Saudi-aligned daily), 10 March 2023.
Opposition media outlets reported that the bombing of Aleppo airport was due to the existence of a weapons and missile depot. The Israeli “Alma” Research Center (close to intelligence) reported that some of them had arrived by land through the Al-Qaim crossing with Iraq, in trucks transporting weapons with humanitarian aid for those affected by the earthquake that hit northern Syria and Turkey on 6 February, while some of these weapons also arrived in a plane to the airport. In another version, the opposition media outlet Orient Net indicated that the weapons were transferred from al-Jarrah Military Airport in Aleppo. The Russian army is now deployed there and allegedly asked the Iranians to transfer their equipment away from the base.


[i] “Global Rapid Post-Disaster Damage Estimation (GRADE) Report,” World Bank, 20 February 2023.

[ii] For more see: Lucas Winter, “Iran Cements its Presence in Syria,” OE Watch, 05-2019.  

[iii] According to the UN, the “closure could have severe humanitarian implications for people in Aleppo, one of the worst earthquake impacted governorates in Syria…We call on all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, including by taking all feasible precautions to spare civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of hostilities.” See: “United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator ad interim for Syria, El-Mostafa Benlamlih statement on the Aleppo International Airport strikes,” 8 March 2023.

Image Information:

Image:  Aleppo in the war (2016)
Source: Louai Barakat,  
Attribution: CC 4.0