By Ala’ Alrababa’h and Ghazi Jarrar
For months now, the Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been advocating the arming of Syrian rebels. Last month a top Arab diplomat revealed that Saudi weapons are being transferred through Jordan to Syria. Jordanian government spokesman and information minister, Rakan Majali, denied the report. More recently, the U.S. has indicated that it might support arming Syrian rebels, and Saudi Arabia has increased pressure on Jordan to allow weapon transfer to the rebels. Jordan is unlikely to be able to resist Saudi pressure for long. A top Jordanian official has recently declared: “We are a non-interventionist country. But if it becomes force majeure, you have to join—this is the story of Jordan.”
Pundits have focused their debates on whether arming Syrian rebels is good or bad for Syria. However, the impact of transferring weapons to Syrian rebels on Jordan has been rarely discussed.
While Kofi Annan’s peace plan in Syria is bound to fail, interest in using Jordan to arm Syrian rebels might resurge.
It is possible to argue that allowing weapons transfer through Jordan to Syrian rebels would benefit Jordan. First, this will improve Jordan’s relations with the Gulf countries. Two of the most enthusiastic proponents of arming Syrian rebels are the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Jordan depends on money from the Gulf countries – whether by Jordanians residing there or in form of aid to the Jordanian government – for a substantial portion of its economy. If passing weapons to Syrian rebels would make the Gulf countries more pleased, then Jordan would surely benefit.
There is a problem with this argument, however. The Gulf countries are already on good terms with the kingdom, and it would be very difficult to see what could be gained through arming the rebels. The flip side is that the Gulf countries might grow dissatisfied if Jordan prevents arming the rebels. But those countries did not attempt at stopping Jordan from trading with Syria, as other countries stopped, when they saw that would be harmful to Jordan. Arming the rebels would be extremely damaging to Jordan, and thus it is not worth taking to make Gulf countries a bit more satisfied.
A second argument for transferring weapons through Jordan is that Syria is already at the point of no return, and arming the rebels may bring the end of the Syrian regime a bit sooner. Furthermore, if Jordan arms the rebels, and those rebels take over the Syrian government, then Jordan would have leverage over the new government.
The issue with those arguments is that they assume that the rebels will have the power to bring down the regime, an audacious assumption to make under current circumstances. Assad still has the backing of a large part of the military, and of Iran, China, and Russia. Although those countries might be more frustrated with his unending campaign to suppress the rebels, it seems unlikely that they will give up on him any time soon. In fact, the Russian foreign minister has recently warned that even arming the rebels “to the teeth” would not defeat Assad’s army. Arming the rebels may, in fact, encourage the regime to escalate its operations, and could provide Iran, Russia, and China with more reason to support the regime. Nobody wants to see that happening.
Using Jordan to arm the Syrian rebels would harm Jordan for multiple reasons. First, Jordanians are already divided on the issue of Syrian protests. While there seems to be a general agreement on viewing Assad as an oppressive, tyrant ruler, many Jordanians still view the rebels and their supporters as part of a foreign conspiracy on Syria. Thus, using Jordan as a venue to equipping Syrian rebels would further polarize Jordan. This could result in protests and even clashes within Jordan.
Second, if the rebels take a long time before they remove Assad and establish their own government, then Jordan would lose an essential economic partner by siding with the rebels. The same effect would happen if Assad emerges as victorious, or if the situation in Syria deteriorates into a civil war. Jordan would lose one of its main economic partners in these cases.
Third, assisting the Syrian rebels could risk spreading the conflict to the Jordanian side of the borders. If Jordan decides to help the Syrian rebels, then the Syrian regime might interpret that as if Jordan is hosting the rebels. The Syrian regime might react by attacking, directly or through some of its supporters within Jordan. This has could make Jordan more involved with the conflict.
Fourth, arming the Syrian rebels through Jordan would be perceived as an hypocritical move by the government. Why would Jordan allow the transfer of weapons through its territories to Syrian rebels fighting a tyrant, while at the same time prevent weapons transferring to Palestinians fighting Israeli occupation? Also, it is true that the Syrian regime is terrorizing civilians, but the rebels’ moral standards are far from perfect. Some reports accuse the rebels of using child soldiers and torture, and of murdering regime supporters.
Jordan may have some potential gains from arming the Syrian rebels through its territory, but the benefits of such a move may easily be outweighed by its drawbacks. One thing is clear at this stage: the potential benefits or drawbacks will be determined by what happens within Syria in the coming weeks. At the moment, things do not look promising.