Jordan’s balancing act on Syria

[28-01-2014 01:54 PM]

Ammon News - Al-monitor - For Jordan, one thing is definite about the peace conference on Syria which opened in the Swiss resort of Montreux last week: It proved that relations with the Damascus government have reached an historic low! Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem dedicated most of his long-winded speech to attacking Syria’s neighbors for aiding terrorists and smuggling weapons. While he did not name Jordan specifically, he referred to it as “the weak southern neighbor” that is “ordered around.” He saved his most vitriolic attacks for the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Reaction in Amman was acerbic. A number of columnists waged an unprecedented attack against Moallem and the regime he represents. Muhannad Mubeideen, a popular talk host, retorted in Addustour daily by saying, “This weak southern neighbor refused an order to join [a US-led international coalition] in Hafr Al Baten [in Saudi Arabia] to wage war on Iraq [in 1990] while Syria obeyed such an order.” He reminded Moallem of Syria’s sinister role in Lebanon and of the regime’s daily crimes against its own people.

Another writer, Bassam Badarin, reminded the Syrian minister, in the daily Al Arab Al Youm, that it was he who took his marching orders from Moscow and Tehran, and that the army of the “weak southern neighbor” had protected the common borders with Syria and never allowed the official crossing point between the two countries to fall into the hands of rebels.

It was another chapter in the turbulent relations between Amman and Damascus, which have witnessed short spells of warmth and eras of hostility. But the Amman punditry was equally critical, if not equally harsh, of the speech that Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Joudeh delivered at the same opening ceremony. Joudeh used all the time allowed to describe the sacrifices that Jordan had made to care for more than a million Syrian refugees. In the view of former minister Sabri Irbeihat, Jordan missed an historic opportunity to express its position on the crisis and Joudeh’s speech “dwarfed Jordan as only a seeker of international aid.”

Another former minister, Ahmad Massadeh, told a local newspaper that Joudeh had missed the chance to respond to Moallem’s attack and present a comprehensive view of the region’s ailments while underlining Jordan’s crucial role.

Such reactions amplified both fears and resentments of the repercussions that the 3-year-old Syrian crisis has had on Jordan. Officially, Amman supports the Geneva II conference that seeks to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. But Jordan has tried to play all sides as well. It has joined the “Friends of Syria” group and signed onto communiqués that stated clearly that President Bashar al-Assad had no role in the future of Syria. It even hosted a meeting for the group in May of last year. On the other hand, the Syrian ambassador has never left Amman in spite of popular calls for his expulsion.

Since the breakout of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the Damascus government has been critical of Amman’s alleged role in allowing fighters and weapons to cross into southern Syria. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al Miqdad had accused Jordan, as recently as December last year, of sponsoring “an operations room” in the north run by US, Israeli and Saudi intelligence officers. Amman has received a number of defecting senior military officers, in addition to former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijjab, who fled to Jordan in August 2012.

In addition, Jordan is one of few countries that host a large number of Syrian refugees, now numbering between 600,000 and 1 million. The Syrian government had alleged that Free Syrian Army (FSA) personnel were being trained by the CIA in north Jordan.

Sources confirm that Jordan has tried to ameliorate its political stance on Syria over the past 12 months in response to changing realities on the ground. Its calculated position has been described as one of the most difficult balancing acts that the regime has had to play. While continuing to participate in the “Friends of Syria” meetings, analysts note that Amman has not received a senior member of the National Syrian Coalition (NSC) in months. In addition it has stopped allowing fighters and weapons to pass through its borders with Syria since the summer of last year.

Lately, the government has waged a campaign to arrest Jordanian Salafist jihadist fighters trying to cross into Syria. At least 70 are in prison awaiting trial before the State Security Court. Between 1,500 and 2,500 Jordanians are thought to be fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

One sign of Jordan’s hesitance to cut ties with Damascus completely is that the government has resisted calls to expel Syrian envoy Bahjat Sulieman, even when he has repeatedly attacked Jordanian critics of Assad. Last week, Sulieman lambasted Jordanian lawmaker deputy Abdullah Obeidat, describing him publicly as “a demented Qatari mercenary.” After Moallem’s tirade in Montreux last week, the chances of expelling Sulieman are greater.

But the prospects of Geneva II ending Assad’s rule are weak, if not impossible. This is the public perception here and it is now shared by senior government officials. In spite of Moallem’s attack on Jordan, pundits believe that the regime will not engage in direct confrontation with Damascus. Sources said that Jordan’s middle-of-the-road approach has been criticized by the Saudis, Assad’s biggest enemies, as well.

Defenders of the Jordan position say that the country hosts a million Syrian refugees, who pose social and economic challenges. Jordan has more than 300-kilometer [186-mile] border with Syria and it is a country with which it had historic problems. If the Damascus regime survives, Jordan would want to keep its options open.

King Abdullah II and President Assad took over from their fathers almost at the same time, at the beginning of the new millennium. They are both Western-educated and at one point they shared the same reformist view for the future of their countries. But that personal relationship has floundered in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Today they are on opposite tracks. The king has been critical of Assad at times, most recently in a lengthy interview with The Atlantic. Most Jordanians support the Syrian rebellion, but there are many, from the left, who favor the regime — until now. For the time being Jordan will continue to maintain its balancing act in its relationship with war-torn Syria.

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