Assad’s poor choices threaten Syria-Jordan detente
For Jordan, a country that emerged relatively unscathed from the ashes of the Arab Spring, the raging civil war in neighboring Syria has always been a source of national anxiety and a key security concern. For decades, relations between the two countries were marked by mutual suspicion, ideological differences and opposite regional and global alliances and agendas. Bashar Assad’s early attempt to liberalize his country and depart from the authoritarian legacy of his father was short-lived. King Abdullah and Assad made some headway in trying to build a personal rapport, but that too was derailed by domestic and regional events.
The eruption of the Syrian uprising in 2011, which was followed by civil war, put ties between the two countries on hold. Jordan’s position on the Syrian crisis fluctuated, with King Abdullah at one stage calling on Assad to step down. The Syrians accused Jordan of backing, training and arming rebel groups.
But as more foreign countries and nonstate actors stepped in to take sides in the brutal civil war, Jordan reevaluated its position. As Daesh emerged in Syria and Iraq, threatening to destabilize the entire region, and as Iran and its proxies dug deep in Syria to defend the regime, while Turkish troops created enclaves inside Syrian territory, King Abdullah’s approach to the crisis shifted.
Embroiled in the war against Daesh, which was coming closer to home, the king was the first leader to welcome Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 that rescued the besieged Assad regime.
With Russian forces firmly entrenched in most parts of Syria, King Abdullah and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an understanding whereby the Kremlin would keep pro-Iran militias, including Hezbollah, and other extremists as far away as possible from Jordan’s border with Syria. With US troops in Al-Tanf base and in eastern Syria, the king had to navigate through tough geopolitical hurdles to maintain his understanding with Putin while making sure that his American allies appreciated the delicacy of his position.
Jordan embraced Putin’s attempt to find political common ground between the regime and the Syrian opposition through the Astana and Sochi processes, while also backing the UN-sponsored Geneva talks.
To Amman’s frustration, Syrian smugglers ratcheted up their activities across the Jordanian border.
Even after Syrian government troops finally succeeded in retaking Deraa and regaining control of most of the 360-km border with Jordan, Amman hoped that Damascus would honor its understandings with Moscow. That arrangement had worked for some time.
The king had understood some key facts about the Syrian crisis, more than a decade after its eruption. When he traveled to Washington in July of 2021, he carried with him a roadmap for a resolution to the crisis that centered on rehabilitating the regime rather than replacing it. Eager to prove his point, the king gave the go-ahead for a gradual process of normalization between Amman and Damascus.
That process saw the reopening of borders, exchange of official visits and resumption of joint ministerial meetings. It culminated with King Abdullah receiving a call from Assad last October for the first time since 2011. Jordan and Egypt also got the green light from the US to supply energy-starved Lebanon with gas and electricity via Syrian territory.
But the Amman-Damascus spring was cut short. Assad was reluctant or unable to meet King Abdullah halfway, with the Syrian president having to coordinate his moves with Tehran and Moscow first. The effort to rehabilitate the regime was also interrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.
Meanwhile, to Jordan’s frustration, Syrian smugglers ratcheted up their activities across the Jordanian border, with a marked increase in attempts late last year. In January, the Jordanian army intercepted and repulsed a huge operation that resulted in the deaths of 27 smugglers and the confiscation of a huge cache of hashish and Captagon pills. In one of the operations, a Jordanian officer was killed and three border guards were wounded.
The complicity of Syrian army elements in facilitating what Jordan described as an organized operation was clear and Amman did not hesitate to blame the regime and pro-Iran militias. These operations are believed to have become a source of much-needed cash for the regime. While Jordan remains a transit country for these drugs, the objective being Gulf markets, there are disturbing signs that more drugs are now finding their way onto Jordanian streets. The situation became so dire that the army ordered a change in the rules of engagement in February, giving officers a free hand in dealing with infiltrators.
This is why King Abdullah warned last week, in an interview with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, that while the presence of Russia in southern Syria was a source of calm, any “vacuum will be filled by the Iranians and their proxies,” and that “unfortunately, we are looking at maybe an escalation of problems on our borders.” Much more than a warning of a Russian vacuum — which would probably be elicited by the redeployment of troops to Ukraine and would almost certainly be filled by Iran and its proxies — the message was also for Assad, who has become a hostage to his Iranian benefactors, that he is unable to stop what Amman now sees as blatant aggression along its border. Assad’s poor choices jeopardize the normalization effort, which would benefit Damascus the most.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010