AMMONNEWS - By stepping onto neighboring Jordanian soil this week, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab might well have severed the final frayed ties between Damascus and Amman, analysts say.
The decision to grant Hijab asylum was a risk for Jordan, which has struggled to maintain a neutral stance through much of the 17-month conflict, unlike countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey that are providing support to the Syrian rebels.
Jordan faces an uncertain domestic political situation and struggling economy. It is also stands to bear the brunt of a humanitarian crisis stemming from the unrest in Syria, which has resulted in the influx of more than 150,000 refugees.
Marwan Musaher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, told dpa: “Jordan has been careful to support a political solution to the crisis and not be seen at the front of efforts to pressure the regime (of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad).”
Musaher added, “Now it seems that there is a realization that a political solution may not be coming.”
Observers point to the bold operation — with alleged close cooperation between the rebel Free Syrian Army and Jordanian military — as a sign of a dramatic “policy shift” in a country that even just a few weeks back refused to call on al-Assad to step down.
Analysts say Jordan's decision to assist with Hijab's flight came as the culmination of a series of events that have pushed Amman to abandon its neutral stance and throw its support behind the rebels.
The Syrian military's targeting of civilians fleeing into Jordan in recent weeks sparked clashes between Jordanian and Syrian forces that security sources say have “bordered on war.”
Analysts say Syria's increasingly aggressive approach in the border region, and Damascus' shunning of Jordan's diplomatic advances, pushed decision-makers in Amman in July to join the anti-al-Assad camp.
Some of the clearest signals of Jordan's policy turnaround have been over the airwaves.
In an interview broadcast within hours of Hijab's arrival, King Abdullah II warned of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons and called into question al-Assad's sincerity to end the bloodshed.
Observers say such statements are part of a wider “outreach campaign” designed to cement ties between Amman and the various rebel forces that may make up any post-al-Assad Syria.
“Hijab's defection and King Abdullah's comments were a clear political message: Jordan stands by the Syrian people and not the Syrian regime,” said political analyst Taher Odwan, a former Jordanian media affairs minister.
“This is a sign Jordan has completely turned its back on the regime and focusing on the future Syria for its own strategic interests.”
Although now firmly in the anti-al-Assad camp, Jordan's ability to hasten the downfall of the Syrian regime is limited, analysts believe.
Jordan is likely to resist international pressure to use its borders as a launching pad for any military intervention, while its proximity to Syria and the reported presence of hundreds of Syrian agents makes it difficult for the country to be used as a base for revolutionaries and defectors.
Facing its own political unrest, an election boycott movement over the lack of pro-democracy reforms and rising unemployment, Jordan is more likely to “lead from behind” in efforts to end the crisis, many observers say.
“Although Jordan has changed its policy towards Syria, this does not mean that it will launch war against Damascus or support military intervention,” said Abdullah Ensour, a Jordanian lawmaker who served as foreign minister during the first Gulf War.
“We are more likely to see a scenario similar to the 2003 Iraq invasion where Jordan played a supportive humanitarian role,” Ensour said.
As Hijab rests in an Amman safe house pondering his next move, observers say Jordan's future course with Syria is all but set.
“It may have come months late, but Jordan has finally arrived at the inevitable conclusion: In Syria you are either with the people or with the regime,” said Rantawi, of the Al-Quds Center.
“The regime is one bet few are willing to take.”
* The China Times