Apr 13, 2012 | 12:44 GMT

7 mins read

Jordan's Reluctance To Confront Syria


Amman is facing pressure from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to take a stronger stance against the Syrian regime, specifically by backing Syrian rebels against the Iranian-backed Alawite government in Damascus. Jordan is the most logical conduit for Arab support, supplies and fighters to enter Syria. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, will try to entice Jordan into serving as the staging ground for Arab intervention in Syria and, by extension, countering Iranian and Shia influence in the region. While it aligns with the Gulf Arab monarchies on most issues, Jordan has a unique historical relationship with Syria and its own set of concerns that will significantly restrain its actions to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Jordan has closer relations with the GCC member states than do any of the other countries bordering Syria — Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel — and is the only one that would consider allowing greater Saudi involvement within its borders. Southern Lebanon and Iraq are too far under the shadow of Iranian influence, and though Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a reasonable working relationship, the GCC has more leverage over Jordan than over any of Syria's other neighbors. Jordan also shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, which could simplify access for financial and logistical support from the Gulf states to the rebels in Syria. A network of tribal, religious and business networks spanning the Syrian-Jordanian border also facilitates the movement of people and goods.

Iran's growing regional influence poses a significant threat to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC member states, and toppling Iran's allies in Syria is a way to undermine Tehran. The Gulf states also have the financial resources to back their own initiatives. Jordan's cooperation could provide Saudi Arabia a venue to extend its reach outside the Gulf and allows Riyadh to project greater influence into the Levant, something Iran has already done in Syria, southern Lebanon, and through Hamas and other groups in Israel. But the Jordanians do not want to see the Saudis turn their country into a proxy battleground against Iran.

The Jordan-Syria Dynamic

Despite Jordan's ideal strategic geographic placement for Saudi and GCC ambitions, the Hashemite Kingdom's historical relationship with Syria and domestic concerns present a unique set of challenges to increased action against Syria. Jordan lacks the hydrocarbon wealth and financial leverage of the GCC, but Amman has been able to utilize the strength of its intelligence service — the foundation of its relationships with the United States, Israel and the rest of the region — to its advantage. Jordan cannot lead an offensive against the al Assad regime, but it can effectively facilitate one.

There is a historical precedent to the current enmity between Jordan and Syria. Syria was briefly one of the Hashemite kingdoms until France established the French Mandate of Syria in 1920. The Syrian king, Faisal, then briefly took asylum in Europe before establishing the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq. Jordanian-Syrian relations took a sharp turn for the worse when the Syrian-backed Iraqi Baath Party overthrew the Iraqi branch of the Hashemite monarchy in a bloody coup in 1958, killing most members of the royal family. The Baathist Syrian state also supported the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) against Jordan in the 1960s and 1970s. Because of this shared history, Jordan views Syria as a lost Hashemite kingdom, while Syria views Amman and the surroundings as part of historical Greater Syria. The two have competed for regional influence for most of the past century.

Mutual competition and mistrust notwithstanding, the current Syrian regime has proved useful to Jordan, though it pursued these actions for its own reasons. It has helped keep Hezbollah under control in southern Lebanon and has provided a check on the rise of Islamists in the region, especially since Jordan has a growing Muslim Brotherhood movement within its borders agitating for political reforms. Large-scale civil unrest following the dissolution of the Alawite regime would almost certainly spill over into Jordan, a country with a tenuous hold at best over its various Islamist groups. If the Jordanian monarchy fell, a contagion effect could spread to Saudi Arabia and the other GCC monarchies.

Jordan's Current Involvement in Syria

Jordan has maintained rhetorical support for GCC and Arab League resolutions on the Syrian uprising but has stopped short of backing direct foreign intervention, as was the case in Libya. Jordan's intelligence agencies are closely monitoring the situation, providing a key listening post for its Western and Gulf state allies.

Like Turkey, Jordan has become a destination for refugees and wounded militants and a haven for Free Syrian Army officers, many of whom have given interviews to international media out of Amman. There is also a large body of anecdotal evident indicating that Saudi and Qatari financial support and supplies, including humanitarian goods, are crossing Jordan's borders into Syria.

The Syrian regime currently appears to be maintaining control against the country's rebel movement. It does not appear likely that Jordan will openly support efforts to undermine the regime unless and until a credible foreign-backed military campaign against Syria begins.  

Risks of Syrian Reprisal

While Jordan's geographic proximity to Syria presents opportunities to Saudi Arabia and its allies, Amman stands to face serious retaliation if it boosted its support for the rebels, and there is a historical precedent for Syrian military action against Jordan. In September 1970, Damascus sent armored forces into Jordan under the leadership of Salah Jadid as part of its support for the PLO. The entry of Syrian forces prompted Jordan's King Hussein to seek assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom. While Jordan in 1970 was able to push back the Syrian incursion, a Syrian strike against Amman today could pose a serious threat, even considering the uncertain status of Syrian military capabilities after a year of internal uprisings. 

The al Assad regime would only conduct such a military strike in a moment of extreme desperation in the face of overt Jordanian involvement in undermining the regime. A Syrian attack on Jordan would most likely require deploying ground forces into Jordan at a time when the Syrian regime needs all the soldiers it can muster for domestic counterinsurgency operations. Even an attack carried out through artillery and missile strikes instead of a land incursion would draw the Jordanian military against Syria, which Damascus would also want to avoid.

The risk of militancy spilling over into Jordan, especially in the event of Syrian regime collapse, presents a more imminent threat. As al Assad must contend with greater opportunities for Islamist insurgency within Syria's borders, Syrian jihadists could eventually join forces with jihadists in Jordan to launch attacks there as the Syrian regime begins to erode. Islamist insurgency within Jordan could trigger Israeli involvement, disrupting Jordan's strategic relationship with Israel.

Bashar al Assad is more likely to leave power through regime collapse than regime change, so Jordan must carefully consider the long-term effects of replacing the Syrian regime it does know with one that it does not. A return to Sunni rule in Damascus could mean a less hostile neighbor on Jordan's border, but the potential involvement of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood could bolster the organization within Jordan, exacerbating a situation Jordan only tenuously controls.

The GCC's Strategy

While Riyadh recognizes Amman's delicate position, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states still have tools at their disposal to encourage greater Jordanian accommodation. Money has always been the GCC's greatest leverage and one of Jordan's biggest needs. Jordan has nowhere near the financial strength and independence of the Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia is poised to capitalize on that fact. Increased cooperation with the GCC could result in cash grants like those Bahrain and Oman received during the so-called Arab Spring in order to help pacify their populations amid the increased regional unrest.

Jordan, along with Morocco, has been trying to join the GCC for some time. Saudi Arabia could offer Jordan membership and its associated benefits in exchange for allowing the GCC greater latitude to operate in Jordanian territory. The increased security cooperation during growing internal and regional unrest would significantly advance Jordan's position, as would the increased financial assistance.

Amman is not without other backers, however. Jordan can push back against increasing GCC pressure and defend its own interests by leaning on its relations with the United States and Turkey. Despite its lack of financial resources and military strength, Jordan has proved quite adept at maintaining its independence by balancing between the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the current Syrian regime.

Jordan may extend its covert logistical support for the Syrian rebels. However, Amman is unlikely to completely fall in line with GCC neighbors on openly calling for the ouster of the Syrian regime unless another foreign stakeholder with the military means and political will to lead the campaign enters the conflict.

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