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Expert Views: Is Jordan Headed Toward Detente With Damascus?

Syria Deeply’s expert community weighs in on a possible rapprochement between Amman and Damascus and the drive in some quarters for improved relations between the two states.

Written by Kim Bode, Alessandria Masi, Hashem Osseiran Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Syrians walk carrying their belongings on August 22, 2017 after crossing the Syria-Jordan border near the town of Nasib as they return to their homes following a US-Russia ceasefire brokered in three southern provinces, Daraa, Quneitra, and Sweida earlier in the year. AFP PHOTO / Mohamad Abazeed

In recent weeks, Jordanian officials have discussed the possibility of reopening Jordan’s border with Syria and have urged allied Syrian rebel groups to withdraw from positions along the shared frontier.

As part of our Expert Views series, Syria Deeply reached out to its expert community to understand the reasoning behind a possible rapprochement between Jordan and Syria and how such a detente could impact their respective allies.

Mona Alami, nonresident fellow, Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Trends Research & Advisory

I don’t see this rapprochement as sudden. From the onset of the revolution in 2011, Jordan asked the Arab league for exemption from Syria sanctions. Jordan’s position was motivated by several factors. First, Syria was at the time one of Jordan’s biggest Arab commercial partners. Bilateral trade was valued at $525 million for that year. Jordan’s trade with Lebanon, Turkey and Europe also went through Syria. Secondly, Jordanian King Abdallah, who was struggling at the time with large protests in his own country, was not comfortable with the fall of a close neighbor.

Starting February of this year, we have been hearing of meetings between Jordanian and Syrian intelligence figures. That same month, Jordanian officials joined a technical meeting on the Syrian de-escalation zone agreement in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

Other factors play into Jordan’s current calculations. First, Russian intervention has clearly tilted the balance of power in favor of [President Bashar] Assad and with rebels abandoned by their backers, the war appears to be reaching an end in Syria. Jordan is being pragmatic and is positioning itself to profit from that geopolitical change. Additionally, Jordan is facing a large jihadi threat and wants to make sure that militant groups do not infiltrate its border with southern Syria. Finally, Jordan is home to over 600,000 refugees that it would like to return. Amicable relations with Damascus would help Amman achieve its objectives and protect its interests.

Denis Sullivan, professor of political science and international affairs and co-director of Middle East Center, Northeastern University

For Jordan, closer ties with Syria are a product of strategic planning and tactical maneuvering. King Abdullah understands Syrian politics better than anyone. Still, recall his October 2011 interview with CNN: “No one has any idea what to do about Syria.” Six years later, that statement stands, but Abdullah is maneuvering as if he has an idea. And the idea is to secure Jordan’s northern border, a fundamental step in securing the entire kingdom. As ISIS is pushed out of Syria, Jordan needs its border to be more secure than ever. Refugees flowing across the border is one thing; ISIS fighters are entirely different.

Jordan’s calculus is: Assad is not going anywhere; rebels are not gaining any ground and ISIS has lost momentum; Jordan cannot indefinitely host 1.5 million Syrians. Syria’s stability – even with Assad in power – is good for Jordan’s stability (as horrifying as that sounds).

Jordan is protected under the U.S. defense and security “blanket.” With that assurance, Abdullah is free to maneuver wherever he must to maintain his throne, his country, his economy. He is even free to befriend [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, Assad’s security blanket, allowing for joint action in Syria (cease-fires or de-escalation zones). For Syria, warming ties with Abdullah is a major step toward Assad’s rehabilitation, if not legitimacy. An Abdullah-Assad rapprochement with hugs and kisses might not happen soon, but lower-level officials are certainly communicating about mutual security interests.

Ayham Kamel, practice head, Middle East & North Africa, Eurasia Group

At a strategic level, Jordanian leadership has started to think more creatively about the Syrian conflict, especially given the Russian intervention and its decisiveness in shifting the balance of power on the ground. I think that the kingdom is now thinking about ways to normalize its relationship with Damascus. As a matter of fact, the Jordanians never severed their relations with the regime, they always maintained an open channel. I think that, at least on the political front, there’s interest in finding ways to rebuild this relationship. Essentially, that would lead to the reopening of the border between Jordan and Syria and an incremental resumption of trade.

This is partly a result of military dynamics on the ground. But it is also because the Russians have been quite influential in convincing King Abdullah that it is necessary for him to assume a more moderate position towards Damascus. With [U.S. President Donald] Trump in the picture, Jordan’s foreign policy machine has realized that the direction of the tide has changed and they need to recalibrate.

The Jordanians are playing a very constructive role in easing tensions in southern Syria. They’re pressuring rebel groups to abide by the cease-fire agreement in the area and are also pushing them to strike deals with the regime in specific areas. That’s not easy to do, but there’s definitely pressure from the Jordanian side on different opposition groups to cooperate given the new status quo.

The reopening of the border would be a big sign of progress towards normalization. That would require local deals that allow safe passage of goods throughout different zones in Syria. The Jordanians are going to not only have an interest and facilitate that, but they have a natural interest in ensuring that trade is resumed. We have to remember that this gateway from Jordan into Syria, and potentially into Turkey and Europe was one of the biggest in the region. From a Jordanian perspective, reopening that line would be highly beneficial.

Sinan Hatahet, senior researcher, Omran Center for Strategic Studies

I wouldn’t describe it as friendly relationship. It is true that compared to the last six years or so, things are getting better, but there’s a huge issue of mistrust. The Syrian regime sees the Jordanians as a proxy regime that works on behalf of the Israelis and the Americans and one that has actively provided armed Syrian opposition groups with weapons, funds and assistance to fight the Syrian army in the southern part of the country. Similarly, the Jordanian regime also doesn’t look kindly at Damascus. It perceives it as a rogue state in the region that has on multiple occasions interfered with Jordanian internal affairs and has supported terrorist groups to attack Jordanian armed forces in the country.

If there is any better dialogue lately, it’s not a direct one, it’s through Russia and the U.S. It’s mostly out of the necessity to work together to fight ISIS. It’s kind of a recognition from Jordan of its inability to act alone against Damascus given that the international community, one way or another, has made its peace with Assad staying in power and hence rehabilitating his authority over Syria.

When the U.S. shifted its policy towards [fighting] ISIS and slowly abandoned the policy for regime change in Damascus, Jordan followed suit. The kingdom prioritized the defeat of ISIS even at the expense of the Syrian opposition, even if it meant that at a certain point it would have to accept the Syrian regime.

There’s still doubt about how well or how fast the relationship between Jordan and Syria will be re-established. This may take longer than many people think, because the terms of agreement around the de-escalation zones are too loose. It still needs to be negotiated, and we need to see whether they’ll be accepted by the rest of the regional actors, including Israel.

The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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