Understanding Jordan's Policy on Syria

9 MINS READJun 6, 2013 | 10:47 GMT
Members of Syria's pro-government tribes sit for a press conference.
Sheikh Mohammed Faris (C), member of the Tay tribe, sits under a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he chairs a press conference of Syria's leading pro-government tribes in Damascus on June 19, 2015, following last month's accusations by the government that Jordan trains rebel groups on its soil.

With Bashar al Assad's forces in Syria making gains against the Syrian rebels in recent weeks, Jordan's need to maintain a pliable foreign policy in relation to the Syrian civil war has become increasingly clear. Jordan's strategy thus far has been to play a diverse set of relationships off each other, and Jordanian actions will continue to be defined by realities as they develop on the ground in Syria.

Jordan's dependence on the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council countries for energy, aid and investment means it will continue to support those countries' efforts to aid Syrian rebel forces. But unlike the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan does not necessarily have a strategic interest in seeing a complete collapse of the government in neighboring Syria — such a development could mean that jihadist fighters currently focused on Syria would turn next to Jordan. Instead, Jordan will do what it can to prevent the jihadists fighting in Syria from spilling across the border and will also take measures to stem the tide of refugees, who are overwhelming Jordan's ability to take them in. If the momentum of loyalist forces against the rebels continues, Jordan will continue to become less supportive of the rebel cause without fundamentally turning against it.

In the past month, there have been three notable developments that on the surface seem to suggest a shift is underway in Jordan's relationship with the Syrian rebels. First, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi traveled to Amman on May 7 for talks with King Abdullah II. In a joint news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Salehi said both Iran and Jordan agreed that dialogue was necessary between the Syrian government and the opposition and that jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra should be excluded from the talks. Judeh also downplayed the presence of international troops in the kingdom, despite the fact that the United States deployed approximately 100 soldiers to a regular army headquarters in Jordan in April. Iran is one of the al Assad regime's biggest supporters, and the public display of cooperation with Iran illustrated Amman's diplomatic flexibility when it comes to its role in the Syrian conflict.

Amman has also begun to take steps that indicate it can no longer handle the daily swell of refugees crossing into Jordan. On May 25, Jordan closed Jaber, one of its main border crossings with Syria, blaming fighting between Syrian troops and rebels for the closure. But Jaber and the rest of Jordan's border with Syria has remained closed since, the first time in the Syrian civil war that Jordan has denied access to Syrian refugees. 

It is unclear how many refugees are currently living in Jordan; the United Nations estimates the number to be close to 450,000, but other reports cite significantly higher figures. A Jordanian official said May 29 that almost 60,000 of the refugees had returned to Syria, either to fight al Assad or because conditions in refugee camps were so deplorable. The refugees have strained Jordan, which struggles just to supply energy and water for its own population. Water scarcity issues have become particularly acute, with Jordan forced to buy water from private wells and to truck water to various villages. If Jordan's ability to supply water to its population continues to diminish, the rural poor could begin to migrate toward Jordanian cities in order to access water, which could result in instability.

Further complicating the situation, Jordan has been threatening to reduce costly subsidies on electricity to help address its budget deficit, and as recently as May 29, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said such a move was "imminent." But electricity is another resource strained by the refugees, and the potential for shortages during the upcoming hot summer months combined with higher prices for domestic consumers could encourage popular discontent with Jordan's government as it did in November 2012. 

Map of Syria and Jordan

Map of Syria and Jordan

Finally, momentum in the conflict has shifted in recent weeks from the rebels to loyalist forces, particularly in al-Qusayr but also in the approaches to Damascus and in southern Syria, which borders Jordan and is an important area from which the rebels can advance toward Damascus. As early as January, Stratfor noted that weapons such as the M79 Osa rocket launcher and the RPG-22 were making their way to Syrian rebels via Jordan and that Jordanian cooperation on the ground had aided the rebels in Daraa and Sweida governorates. On April 26, loyalist forces captured the town of Otaiba, east of Damascus. In so doing the Syrian army effectively severed key rebel supply lines for staging attacks in Damascus. And while there is no concrete evidence that Jordan itself has lessened or stopped shipments of weapons to the rebels, the Syrian army made a successful push to capture the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh near the strategically important, rebel-controlled city of Daraa in early May. At the time, there were rumors that one of the reasons the rebels had failed to hold the town was that a Syrian opposition group reportedly supported by Jordan had failed to supply adequate weapons.

A Change in Policy?

Jordan's recent actions ultimately are about the current state of the conflict between loyalist and opposition forces in Syria. First, there are the significant gains that Syrian loyalists have made in recent weeks. This is in large part due to the considerable external support of Iran and Russia, both of which continue to deliver much-needed materiel to al Assad's forces. It is also due to the presence of foreign Shiite fighters such as those from Hezbollah, which has led the way as the loyalists have pushed to regain control of the city of al-Qusayr, a strategically important location in Homs governorate. (Without Homs, Damascus would be cut off from its main supply lines and from the Alawite-dominated coast.) The reality that the Syrian civil war will be a protracted conflict and that al Assad could endure for some time prevents Jordan from simply choosing to support one side over the other.

In addition, the Syrian rebels have shown themselves to be an incoherent entity at best. There has been significant dissension within Syria's main opposition National Coalition — in fact, on June 3 the Syrian Revolution General Commission actually withdrew from the coalition. Syria's jihadist fighters are also divided, as evidenced by Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly requesting that Salafist-jihadist groups in Jordan not send fighters into the fray without first consulting al-Nusra. It is particularly surprising that al-Nusra, which proclaimed in April that it was part of al Qaeda in Iraq's network, would potentially deny an important resource, able fighters, when loyalist forces are making gains. Al-Nusra also generally has less control in southern Syria on the border with Jordan and feels it is losing the ability to control the jihadist fighters operating under its umbrella, either because of differing ideology or because of infiltration by hostile sources posing as jihadists. 

The presence of jihadists on its borders is of particular concern for Jordan because of the intellectual linkage between al Qaeda in Iraq and Jordan. Jordanian Salafist Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi was the spiritual mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder and original leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Not even Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states, the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition and the countries that put pressure on Jordan to let them supply Syria's rebels, have an interest in empowering jihadists such as al-Nusra or al Qaeda in Iraq to the extent that they could assume regional influence. On the one hand, Jordan does not want to give these Salafist-jihadists reason to target the Jordanian regime; on the other, letting these forces gain experience in Syria could have negative ramifications in the future.

The reality that the Syrian civil war will be a protracted conflict and that al Assad could endure for some time prevents Jordan from simply choosing to support one side over the other.

On a superficial level it would appear that there has been a shift in Jordan's Syria strategy, but in truth, Amman's greatest commitment throughout the duration of the conflict has been to its own security and not one particular outcome. In February and March, reports surfaced that Jordan had been increasingly active in supplying weapons and training to Syrian rebel fighters. At the time, the Syrian rebels were pressing their offensive against al Assad, and Jordan felt it necessary to increase its support of the rebels, in part because of pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states. However, while this was happening, Amman was reportedly still maintaining its political contacts with Syrian Alawites and other politically relevant actors in the country.

Now the loyalists have been able to develop some momentum on the battlefield. While some of Jordan's public policies appear to betray a newfound support for al Assad, Jordan is still operating in a middle ground to the extent it can and is putting its own security first. In fact, the United States announced June 4 that it might deploy a Patriot missile battery and an unspecified number of F-16s in Jordan following a regional military exercise — not exactly the behavior of a country that is turning its back on the Syrian rebels or supporting an Iranian view of the situation.

Ultimately, there are two things Jordan is most concerned with as it deals with the fallout of the Syrian conflict. Jordan wants to limit spillover into its territory, in particular from radical Salafist-jihadists who would foment unrest in the kingdom and from refugees, who are straining Jordan's already thin resources. At the same time, Amman wants to maintain its positive relationships with its regional neighbors and foreign patrons. That means supporting a political settlement that would keep al Assad in power while at the same time aiding U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council efforts to depose al Assad. Syria's civil war will be a protracted conflict and momentum will shift back and forth between the combatants as it takes its course. Jordan's outward disposition will vary based on who has the advantage in the conflict. As long as the balance of forces is relatively equal, Amman will find itself in the tricky position of supporting both sides.

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