By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Nayera Abdallah
AMMAN/DUBAI (Reuters) -Syria said on Tuesday there was no justification for Jordanian air strikes on its territory that its neighbour said had targeted Iran-linked drug dealers whose border incursions posed a direct threat to Jordan’s national security.
Jordan has stepped up a campaign against drug traffickers after clashes last month with dozens of people it suspects of links to pro-Iranian militias carrying large hauls of narcotics over its border from Syria, along with arms and explosives.
A deadly strike last Thursday, among several since last year on hideouts of drug dealers and warehouses linked to Iranian militias in Syria’s south, killed 10 civilians, among them women and children, according to regional intelligence sources corroborated by accounts of residents and witnesses.
“The escalation that we have witnessed in the past few months,” a Syrian foreign ministry statement said, “is not at all consistent with what was agreed upon from both sides regarding sincere cooperation to combat all violations, including criminal gangs for drug smuggling and trafficking.
“Syria stresses that there is no justification for these military operations and stresses that it tries to contain (them)in the interest of not raising tensions,” the statement said.
The Jordanian govermment did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Two Jordanian officials, who asked not to be named, denied civilians had been targeted. They said the strikes in Syria come after repeated warnings in high-level meetings with Syrian officials that Amman would take action if Damascus kept ignoring requests to stem an alarming rise in drug-related incursions.
They said the increase in incidents coincided with increasing attacks on U.S. bases in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria and in Iraq by pro-Iranian militias in solidarity with Palestinian militants fighting Israel’s offensive in Gaza.
Jordan’s government, like its Western allies, says Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and other pro-Iranian militias who control much of southern Syria are behind a surge in drug and weapons smuggling.
Iran and Hezbollah deny this, saying the accusations are part of a Western plot against them. Syria’s government denies that its security and military forces work hand in hand with Iranian-backed militias involved in drug trafficking.
Jordanian officials say they have provided names of key drug dealers to Syrian authorities.
Supplies of a Syrian-made amphetamine known as captagon reaching Gulf Arab states via Jordan are worth billions of dollars a year and finance a host of pro-Iranian and pro-government militias spawned by more than a decade of conflict in Syria, according to U.S. and European officials.
Both Washington and the European Union last year imposed sanctions on senior officials associated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for alleged involvement in captagon trade, which they say is also a financial lifeline for his inner circle. Assad’s government denies any role in captagon trafficking.
Some Jordanian officials say pro-Iranian militias in both Iraq and Syria are using the drug war to pile pressure on Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally that hosts hundreds of U.S. troops.
Washington has given Jordan around $1 billion to bolster border security since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, and has recently sent more military aid to that end, Western intelligence sources say.
(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi and Nayera Abdallah; editing Michael Georgy, Tomasz Janowski and Mark Heinrich)