Jordan ruler’s Moscow visit raises hopes of an end to Syrian crisis
Jordan’s King Abdullah is intensifying his diplomatic efforts to end the political stalemate in neighboring Syria by seeking to put together a task force to engage the Syrian regime in a bid to change its behavior. A month after he became the first Arab leader to meet with President Joe Biden and top US officials, the king flew to Moscow this week on a working visit to discuss the Syrian crisis with President Vladimir Putin.
In a CNN interview aired while he was in Washington last month, King Abdullah said that “Syrian refugees are not going to go back any time soon, and that takes us to the challenge that we are now discussing with the US and the Europeans.”
He added: “Bashar Assad has legitimacy, and so the regime is there and we have to be mature in our thinking. Is it regime change or behavioral change? And if it’s behavioral change then what do we have to do to come together to talk to the regime, because everyone else is doing it and there is no plan at the moment.”
The Jordanian leader said that the West should talk to the Russians who are playing a vital role.
The king has maintained a special relationship with Putin over the years and has been a frequent visitor to the Russian capital. The two leaders last met in Sochi in October 2019, but they did speak on the phone last June. The two sides have a common view on the Palestinian question and other regional issues, and as they celebrate 58 years of diplomatic relations, they seek to expand strategic, economic, cultural and military ties.
Russia has supported Jordan’s position on the two-state solution and King Abdullah’s role as custodian of holy places in East Jerusalem. Even though Jordan is a close ally of the US, the king has been able to maintain strong ties with the Russian leader, especially following the eruption of the civil war in Syria.
That has helped Amman gain a pledge from the Russians to keep pro-Iranian militias in southern Syria away from Jordan’s borders. Jordan has been quick to appreciate the geopolitical shifts in the region, especially following the Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015. It has also backed Russian efforts to launch a political process in Syria and has attended a number of these meetings as an observer.
Jordan has been quick to appreciate the geopolitical shifts in the region, especially following the Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015.
Talks between the two leaders have covered the crisis in Daraa, where the Syrian regular army backed by the Russian military is besieging Syrian rebels entrenched in the old town. The fall of Daraa to the rebels last month forced Jordan to close the border crossing days after it was fully reopened. Jordan had hoped to revive trade with its northern neighbor. It is believed that King Abdullah had asked Biden for a waiver from sanctions under the Caesar Act. For Jordan, reopening the trade route to the north is vital for its ailing economy.
In a related development, King Abdullah and Putin have discussed the US offer to supply Lebanon with Jordanian electricity through Syria in a bid to alleviate the acute energy shortage facing Lebanon. The US gesture came in response to previous Jordanian requests, which were rejected by the former US administration. To resolve this issue logistically, Jordan will have to coordinate closely with the Syrian regime. The move will be supported by Egypt, which will supply Amman with additional quantities of natural gas.
This could be key to re-engaging the regime with Russian support. It could pave the way for further steps toward normalizing ties with Damascus in return for concrete steps to revive the political process. Amman hopes to take the lion’s share of future reconstruction deals, especially in southern Syria. Jordan is also seeking to create positive conditions in that region to encourage hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the kingdom to return voluntarily. Meanwhile, Jordan has had to adapt to a decrease in foreign aid to assist it in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis.
It is also believed that King Abdullah’s efforts are backed by a number of Arab states that would like to see an end to the Syrian crisis in the hope of limiting Iranian influence over Damascus. Jordan, Iraq and Egypt have formed a trilateral economic bloc and hope that Syria could join in future.
King Abdullah is leading efforts to create a new understanding of the Syrian crisis that will pave the way for an end to the decade-old civil war, the rehabilitation of the regime and the launch of a political process with the aid of the Russians. But will his efforts bear fruit?
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010