By Ghazi Jarrar (twitter:@ghazijarrar)
Entering its third year of conflict, Syria has imposed great challenges on Jordan. Among these challenges are, a major refugee problem, a security threat, and a big impact on bilateral trade. In a conflict that has ebbed and flowed more than once, Jordan’s national interests are in working with all concerned parties in the conflict. Ultimately, the desired goal of Jordan’s Syria policy should be to maintain a balanced stance, thus ensuring a working relationship with the ultimate victors in Syria.
Accordingly, this evaluation will assess whether Jordan has succeeded in its delicate balancing act between both the Syrian regime, and the Syrian opposition (military and political). Given the international nature of the conflict, the evaluation will also consider Jordan’s policy and relationship with pro-regime and pro-opposition international players.
The Syrian Regime
Despite King Abdullah’s early remarks calling on Bashar al-Assad to step aside, Jordan has shown little animosity towards the Syrian regime. For one, unlike its counterparts in Egypt and the GCC, Syria’s embassy in Amman is still open. Jordan’s embassy in Damascus is also open.
To be sure, there has been tension between the two regimes. For example, in a recent letter, the Jordanian foreign minister threatened to expel the outspoken Syrian ambassador for “breaching all norms and diplomatic practices.” Nasser Judeh quickly clarified his position stating that the Syrian ambassador is no rival of the Jordanian government. On its part, the Syrian regime issued a number of strong warnings to Jordan. Most notably, in an April interview, the Syrian President warned Jordan of aiding the Syrian opposition.
Relatively minor tensions aside, the Jordanian-Syrian relations have not collapsed. In fact, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Mualim, recently said that his country looks towards a “good neighborly relationship” with Jordan. The foreign minister went on to argue that by battling the armed opposition, his country is defending Jordan from al-Qaeda.
In line with Jordan’s national interest in maintaining a balanced stance, the Kingdom’s policy towards the regime has been successful. After all, a regime victory may not be Jordan’s preferred outcome, but the Kingdom is well situated to work with the regime should it win the conflict. And as evidenced by al-Mualim’s recent comments, the Syrian regime is also willing to work with the Jordanians.
The Syrian Opposition
Despite official neutrality, a number of reports have shown otherwise. A recent L.A. Times report showed that U.S troops have been training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons in Jordan since last year. According to the American newspaper, 20 to 45 insurgents were being trained at a time.
In connection with President Obama’s recent decision to arm the Syrian rebels, a Wall Street Journal report claimed that the CIA is using Jordan to arm small groups of Syrian rebels through Jordan. While there are few who question the accuracy of such reports, Jordanian officials continue to deny these allegations.
In addition to covertly arming and training the Syrian rebels, the Jordanian Armed Forces have been in coordination with the Free Syrian Army to facilitate the influx of refugees into the kingdom. Brigadier General Hussein al-Zyoud did not deny co-operation with the FSA, but insisted that they are “solely of humanitarian nature.”
On the political front, Jordan has established connections with the Syrian political opposition. In May, Amman hosted the ‘Friends of Syria’ coalition, which included representatives of the Syrian oppositions. Amman also hosts a rival opposition group led by ex-Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who defected to Jordan in August of 2012.
Jordan’s policy towards the rebels, particularly if its support to the armed groups proves to be decisive, will allow the Kingdom to exercise leverage over a future opposition-led Syria. With Western support, Jordan may be able to identify and empower the moderate opposition. This will be key in maintaining security in Jordan, and expanding economic ties with post-conflict Syria.
The International Players
The delicate balancing act between the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition has an important international dimension. On the one hand, Jordan runs the risk of aligning with the Western (and GCC)-led anti-Assad camp, thus alienating the Syrian regime and losing Russian goodwill.
Alternatively, in an attempt to remain neutral towards the crisis, Jordan may decide to resist Western and Arab pressure to supply and train the rebels on Jordanian soil. This might deprive Jordan from its much-needed share of aid, and Western goodwill.
In reality, the dilemma above is too simplistic. For the longest duration, Jordan appeared to be caught between an aggressive GCC Syria policy, and a hesitant American Syria policy. Jordan’s initial resistance to supplying the Syrian rebels came at the price of alienating the GCC. To be sure, adopting a GCC-like policy means gambling on an imminent and quick collapse of the Syrian regime. In retrospect, Jordanian foreign policy was correct in not predicting such a rapid collapse.
Conversely, Jordanian caution did little to alienate the U.S., with whom relations have only become stronger. The mounting burden of the Syrian crisis on Jordan led the Americans to send an additional $200 million of aid. The U.S. has also stationed 700 troops in Jordan, and provided the Kingdom with Patriot missiles, and F-16 jets. As Nabil Mikhail of George Washington University puts it, Jordan has become a “crystalized, defined, strategic terrain” for the West.
Jordan has also maintained its relations with Syria’s important ally, Russia. During a February meeting with President Putin, King Abdullah reaffirmed the strong ties between the two countries. Signalling stability in the relationship, the two leaders discussed Russian participation in building Jordan’s first nuclear plant.
Three years into the Syrian conflict, Jordan is able to communicate with the regime, cooperate with the rebels, maintain its international allies, and enhance its relationship with the U.S.
In many ways, Jordanian foreign policy has been able to walk the tight rope. But in light of U.S. endorsement of the armed rebels, the upcoming challenge will be to maintain a balanced policy as the Kingdom becomes more involved in aiding the rebels. In the coming weeks, the rope will only become tighter.