Jordan's Cautious Support of Syrian Rebels

6 MINS READFeb 4, 2013 | 11:30 GMT
Jordan's Cautious Support of Syrian Rebels
Syrian rebels in Idlib province Jan. 30

As Syrian rebels try to close in on Damascus, increasing numbers of jihadists and militants are becoming active in southern Syria near the Jordanian border. Jordan is worried that the presence of these fighters could embolden its own Islamist opposition if Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime collapses. But the Syrian rebels are not going anywhere, and Amman has an interest in developing constructive relationships with the rebels that are fighting against the al Assad regime.

In the service of these relationships, Amman has decided to allow weapons transferred from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies into Syria in exchange for much-needed economic aid from Gulf Cooperation Council states. At the same time, Jordan is maintaining its relationship with Syria's Alawite forces so that it can play the rebels and the regime forces off of each other. This is a delicate strategy because Jordan's Islamist opposition and inherent economic problems will continue to present challenges as the border with Syria further destabilizes.

In the 1950s, the Hashemite kingdom watched as Arab nationalism swept through the region. The kingdom maintained its stability at the time in large part due to the support of the United Kingdom. Today, Jordan finds itself in a similar situation as Sunni Islamism rises as the political ideology of the day. Jordanian King Abdullah II must deal with Amman's lack of energy resources and overall poverty while managing an active Islamist opposition whose interests align with those of the increasingly active militants on Jordan's border with Syria. Jordan's location between Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia means Amman is surrounded by ideological and political competition. But as in the 1950s, Jordan can count on some external support; countries such as the United States (which has reportedly sent military advisers to Jordan to help manage the flood of Syrian refugees and to address concerns about Syrian chemical weapons) and the Gulf Cooperation Council states have an interest in maintaining Jordan's stability. Though Jordan's location puts it in a difficult situation, Amman is trying to use its circumstances to its advantage to secure economic aid by allowing weapons to be transferred from regional states to the Syrian rebels while still maintaining connections with Syria's Alawite forces.

Map of Syria and Jordan

Map of Syria and Jordan

King Abdullah is by no means in a secure situation. Though his regime fared well in the Jan. 23 parliamentary elections, which featured a fracturing of the opposition and relatively tame public protests, it will have to continue to balance Jordan's ethnic factions. Fundamentally, the unrest in Jordan is not about political representation alone. Protests began in 2011, instigated not by the Muslim Brotherhood but by Bedouins who were frustrated with their economic situation. While the king has shown that he has the tools and political savvy to balance the competing factions fighting for political power, he is far more limited in what he can do to help the Jordanian economy and remove the proximate cause of dissatisfaction with the regime.

Jordan's trade deficit is now more than $7 billion — approximately 25 percent of the estimated 2012 gross domestic product. The country lacks significant energy reserves and sufficient energy import infrastructure. It once relied on heavily subsidized energy imports from its neighbors, but now it must either pay a higher premium for crude imports from Saudi Arabia or be subject to fluctuations in supply from Iraq and Egypt; Iraq recently closed its border with Jordan for a few days due to Sunni unrest, and Egypt cut the normal 240 million cubic feet of gas exports to Jordan by two-thirds in the midst of unrest over the past week. Jordan's economic woes have made it dependent on capital infusions from the International Monetary Fund as well as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, but in order to secure such loans — including the $2 billion loan it received from the IMF in July 2012 — the monarchy has had to lift some fuel subsidies, sparking protests. With the elections behind him, King Abdullah's next challenge will be the continued institution of austerity measures, which will upset the Jordanian population but are necessary to secure financial support.

The institution of austerity measures is not the only condition of the financial aid Jordan seeks. Jordan's dependence on Saudi Arabia has left it vulnerable to manipulation by Riyadh, encouraging Amman to take a more active role against the Syrian regime in exchange for financial support. And in recent weeks, developments in Syria have created an opportunity for Jordan to maximize its gains from supporting the rebels. There is evidence that significant weaponry has been flowing from Jordan into the southern Syrian governorates of Daraa and Sweida. Rebels fighting in southern Syria are using weapons like the M79 Osa rocket launcher, the RPG-22, the M60 recoilless rifle and the RBG-6 multiple grenade launcher. While the United Arab Emirates is the only Gulf Cooperation Council country that has delivered its share of the total promised $5 billion aid to Jordan so far, Stratfor sources have indicated that Saudi Arabia will ensure that the rest is delivered. Riyadh has offered Amman an additional $500 million this year in return for allowing military support to cross the border into Syria.

This is a difficult balance for Jordan to manage, but it has little choice. Jordan is wary of the possibility of Syrian Islamist rebels using Jordanian territory as a base of operations in the short term, and carrying out attacks or supporting Islamist elements within Jordan itself in the long term if al Assad is toppled. There have already been reports of Syrian army defectors connecting with elements of Jordan's Islamist opposition. In fact, many of the foreign members of Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra are either Iraqi or Jordanian; a brother-in-law of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the infamous al Qaeda commander originally from Zarqa, Jordan) was reported killed in Syria fighting on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra. Over 250,000 Syrian refugees have already crossed into Jordan, and Amman must increasingly worry about the consequences of this refugee influx.

Jordan has been very cautious about allowing military support for the Syrian rebels to pass through its borders. But Amman has little choice — the rebels will be present in the area for the foreseeable future, and it is better for Jordan to forge connections with them rather than become a target if al Assad eventually falls. In the meantime, Jordan needs the economic support that countries such as Saudi Arabia have to offer. While the weapons being allowed into Syria are helpful to the rebel cause, they will not give the rebels a decisive advantage. Saudi Arabia has an interest in toppling al Assad because it wants to break the arc of Shiite influence that stretches from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon, but at the same time it does not want to empower the Sunni Islamist arc of influence stretching from Egypt through Jordan and Syria either. This gives Amman some leverage in dealing with the Gulf Cooperation Council states. There is evidence that King Abdullah is trying to preserve his flexibility to an extent, not just by building connections with the rebels fighting on Jordan's border but also by maintaining connections with Syrian Alawites and other parts of Syria's political spectrum. In some ways this strategy mirrors the approach King Abdullah has taken in tackling his domestic political issues: He is forming a diverse set of relationships with as many groups as possible and playing them off of each other.


Editor's note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated the trade deficit. It is nearly $7 billion.

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