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Why Jordan-Syria relations may improve soon

Jordan and Syria could soon be opening a new chapter in relations, following an indirect exchange of positive remarks by officials in both countries. Butheina Shaaban, special adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad, last week said relations with Jordan are destined to improve. 
She later told a visiting Jordanian non-governmental delegation that Damascus is ready to respond to positive steps that Amman may take. A senior Syrian official was also quoted as saying his country is looking to the future, not the past, vis-a-vis relations with Jordan.
Responding indirectly to these statements, Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Al-Momani on Friday said: “Our relations with the Syrian state and regime are going in the right direction.” He added that his remarks are “a very important message that everyone should hear.” 
These positive statements point to a willingness by both sides to turn the page on what was often a tense and distrustful relationship following the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. While normalization is yet to start, and may take a number of confidence-building measures before achieving its goals, it should not come as a surprise that Jordan may be the first regional country to move closer to Damascus. 
Since the Syrian conflict erupted, Amman has chosen to follow an independent course, and has adjusted its position in response to developing geopolitical realities. But the fundamentals of that policy have remained firm and unchanged: Jordan has always insisted on preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, while calling for a political resolution to the crisis. 
It has also underlined the importance of preserving Syria’s state institutions in order to prevent the country’s collapse and fragmentation. Unlike other regional players, Jordan never called for Assad’s removal as a condition to ending the crisis. That decision was left to the Syrian people. 
But that did not prevent Amman from criticizing Damascus’ response to the popular uprising and condemning atrocities committed by all sides. And while Syrian officials, including Assad, attacked Jordan on many occasions — accusing it of training and funding rebels, and allowing “terrorist fighters” to enter Syria — Amman’s response was always prudent and diplomatic. 
Jordan was among the few countries that kept its embassy in Damascus open, while allowing the Syrian embassy to function. Only when the Syrian Army lost control of the border crossing between the two countries did Jordan close it from its side. And despite the huge economic burden, Jordan continued to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees, allowing them to work and benefit from health and education services.

While Syrian officials, including Assad, attacked Jordan on many occasions — accusing it of training and funding rebels, and allowing ‘terrorist fighters’ to enter Syria — Amman’s response was always prudent and diplomatic.

Osama Al-Sharif

While keeping communication channels open with the Syrian opposition, Amman’s position was always clear in calling for a negotiated political solution to the crisis. It backed the Geneva process, and joined the Astana technical talks as an observer. It played a crucial role in the fight against Daesh in Syria, especially in preventing the terrorist group from expanding its presence into southern Syria. 
Jordan was quick to welcome Russia’s enhanced role in Syria, and viewed Moscow as a capable player that could preserve the country from fragmentation and influence the Assad regime’s position toward accepting a political settlement.
More importantly, Jordan’s King Abdullah was able to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to exclude southern Syria from major military operations, allowing Amman to use its influence over moderate rebel groups in the south to focus their efforts on fighting Daesh. 
These efforts were translated into the trilateral agreement last month to enforce a de-escalation zone in most of southern Syria. The truce there has held so far, and allowed Damascus to begin negotiations with rebel groups in Daraa, which should result in reconciliation and a peaceful end to the conflict in the south.
More importantly, the pacification of the south should allow Damascus to take control of the border crossing with Jordan, resulting in the opening of that vital link soon. It should enable the repatriation of Syrian refugees in the near future, and the beginning of reconstruction. 
Throughout the past seven years, Amman and Damascus have kept some channels of communications open, at least at the military and intelligence levels. Both countries have a shared interest in preventing southern Syria from falling to Islamist militant groups. Jordan’s key objective was to secure its long border with Syria. This is why the return of the Syrian Army to these borders is viewed positively by Amman.
Jordan was quick to read the changing political mood in many Western capitals regarding Assad’s fate. Its initial policy toward the Syrian crisis has given it flexibility, and while a political solution has a long way to go, a normal bilateral relationship may give a much-needed boost to that process.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.