Jordan mobilizes Arabs for fear of the “worst” in Syria
Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa
A few days ago, King Abdullah II of Jordan returned to talk about Jordanian efforts to push for a political solution to the Syrian crisis, days after Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, announced that his country would mobilize to support an Arab-led “Arab initiative” to end the war in Syria.
Jordan seeks a “solution that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity and ensures the voluntary and safe return of refugees,” the king said at a meeting that gathered a number of political figures on 2 October, noting the role of the Jordanian army in “countering” drug trafficking, most of which comes across the Syrian-Jordanian border.
On 26 September, Jordan’s Foreign Minister announced Amman’s mobilization of regional and international support for an Arab-led “Arab initiative” to “end the war in Syria.”
Speaking to the Emirati newspaper The National on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Safadi said that Jordan called for a “collective Arab role” to end the “Syrian crisis” in coordination with friends and partners, noting that Arabs should take a “step-by-step approach” and lead the resolution of what he called the “Syrian conflict.”
According to the Foreign Minister, the Arab-led operation will include Saudi Arabia and other unnamed countries, provided that it is based on United Nations resolutions N. 2254 and N. 2642, which in turn lay out a “road map” for a negotiated settlement in Syria and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syrians.
The announcement of the “Arab Initiative” raises questions about Jordan’s mobilization objectives and the extent to which it can be activated in the light of the various visions of the Arab States regarding a solution that would bring an “end to the crisis,” as well as the chances of success of what it seeks to achieve.
These are not Jordan’s first statements. At the end of May, Safadi stated that engaging in a political solution was the only solution in Syria, calling for a greater Arab role in finding such a solution and for the creation of a mechanism that would allow Arab countries to play a “domestic and national role in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis that focuses on the interest of Syrians and Syrian territory.”
Why is Jordan mobilizing Arabs?
Speaking about the need to find a solution in Syria, Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, considered that “there has not been a real process to address this crisis in the past few years, but rather it has been based on the policy of the status quo, and we cannot live with the policies of the status quo.”
Safadi spoke of what he considered to be the “continuing devastating consequences of the Syrian crisis,” namely the non-return of Syrian refugees to their country in a struggling economy, with millions of Syrians living below the poverty line.
On 23 September, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, met with his Jordanian counterpart on the sidelines of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly and discussed the return of Syrian refugees, among other topics, including border security, combating drug smuggling, water, and food security.
Jordan hosts some 676,000 Syrian refugees, according to the latest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures, most of whom live in the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps. The Jordanian Government’s statistics estimate that approximately 1.3 million Syrians are on its territory; some of them entered the country before the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011 by virtue of lineage, intermarriage, and trade.
Several factors drive an action
Jordanian writer and political researcher Pr. Zaid al-Nawaisah considered that Jordan had put forward this initiative on several grounds. On the one hand, this was driven by Jordan’s belief that Arabs should play a positive role in “ending the tragedy of the Syrian crisis, which has had a bloody impact on the structure of the Syrian State and Syrian citizens in terms of harsh living conditions.” On the other hand, it is Jordan’s general policy to “endeavor to resolve any differences within the Arab house.”
With regard to Jordan’s strategic gains from this initiative, al-Nawaisah said in an interview with Enab Baladi that Jordan is interested in making Syria, Jordan’s closest neighbor, a stable country, considering it more suitable for the Jordanian state to “engage with an existing state with an army, institutions, and control over its borders.”
For his part, Jordanian strategist Pr. Amer al-Sabayleh said that Jordan is moving within this framework recently because prolonging the Syrian crisis brings greater and more serious repercussions for it at the political, economic, and security levels, especially with regard to the spread of drugs, amid the danger that Jordan will become a hub for this phenomenon.
According to a study released by Jusoor for Studies on 5 October, several major factors are pushing Jordan to introduce a “solution initiative” in Syria, including international circumstances such as Russia’s reprioritization of foreign policy as a result of the conflict with Ukraine, Turkey’s new approach to its relationship with the Syrian regime, as well as demonstrations in Iran that have made it more preoccupied with its internal situations.
According to the study, other key factors include the issue of eastern Mediterranean gas, the issue of Arab depth, and the issue of drugs and weapons entering Jordan through Syria.
Failure to communicate with the regime
Syrian political researcher at Jusoor Center for Studies, Firas Faham, believes that Jordan’s goal behind this initiative is to try to involve the Arab Gulf States specifically in the issue of defending Jordan’s national security as a result of the escalation of security threats coming from the Syrian borders to Jordan and their arrival to the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, most notably the continuation of drug smuggling and reports of Iran’s intention to build a large military base near the Jordanian border.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Faham considers that Jordan appears to be fearful of the future, especially after Russia reduced its commitments to reduce or restrict the Iranian presence in Syria following its preoccupation with the invasion of Ukraine.
The recent Jordanian position may reflect an “implicit failure” of direct communication with the regime as a means of safeguarding Jordanian security interests and ending threats from Syria, according to researcher Firas Faham, explaining that the channels of communication that Jordan opened with the regime during the last period did not result in the assimilation of these threats, nor did it generate a response to Iran’s removal from the Jordanian border.
As mentioned by Faham, Jordan resorted to hinting at its support for the political transition and moving the Syrian file by means of supporting the political transition and implementing UN resolutions.
Since 2011, official political relations between Syria and Jordan have witnessed shifts in attitudes on the Jordanian side. Jordan’s attitude towards the Syrian regime’s use of military machinery against peaceful demonstrators has been characterized by “ambiguity” and has emerged more clearly when the Jordanian monarch called on the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to step down.
But in 2018, Jordanian calls for Assad’s departure declined, with Jordan welcoming the return of the Syrian ambassador to Amman.
This was followed over the past three years by reciprocal visits between the two countries by diplomatic and economic delegations and a Jordanian tendency to normalize economic and then political relations with the Syrian regime.
Five stages of post-2011 Syrian-Jordanian relations
In the years since 2011, relations between Syria and Jordan have undergone dramatic changes, especially on the Jordanian side.
The first transformation was at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Jordan’s attitude towards the Syrian regime’s use of military machinery against peaceful demonstrators was characterized by “ambiguity.” Jordan initially pursued a strategy based on caution and reluctance to declare an explicit stance on the escalation of violence, providing humanitarian assistance to displaced people from Daraa who had escaped escalations in the city.
“Advice to step down”
As events unfolded on the Syrian scene, Jordan’s attitude of caution continued for fear of being drawn into unexpected scenarios. Jordan refused to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus, as did the Gulf States after Syria’s suspension from the League of Arab States (LAS) in August 2011, despite Amman’s support for LAS resolutions.
Jordan took a step backward and began to recalculate and put its cards in order. Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, was the first to advise the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to step down.
“Supporting the opposition”
As the Syrian revolution entered the stage of armed action in its second year and Syrian opposition factions took control of large areas of Syria, Jordan’s position shifted towards supporting the opposition.
Jordan welcomed the Syrian opposition on its territory and allowed it to move freely and speak to the media openly against the Syrian regime.
“MOC… Escalation of support”
The years 2013 and 2014 witnessed development in Jordanian attitudes towards events in Syria, with Jordan agreeing to establish the Military Operations Center (MOC) on its territory.
The Military Operations Center (MOC) is a military coordination room comprising representatives of US, British, French, and Arab intelligence services, with the objective of providing military support to Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, particularly in the southern region.
“Al-Assad must change his behavior”
Following the Syrian regime’s renewed takeover of the south of Syria in 2018, Jordan began searching for the return of “economic” relations with the Syrian regime and the opening of the Nassib border crossing, which is Amman’s gate to Europe.
After several visits that have been economically dominated over the past three years, the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah II, said in July 2021 that “Bashar al-Assad continues to be in power, and the regime is still in place. Therefore, we have to be mature in our thinking. Are we looking for regime change or behavior change?”
Three months later, al-Assad made his first telephone call to King Abdullah II since 2011, addressing “relations between the two brotherly countries and ways to strengthen cooperation between them.”
Will Arabs reach a consensus to bring an end to the “Syrian crisis”?
Jordanian political researcher Pr. Zaid al-Nawaisah said that Jordan does not act alone, expecting that there will be “an Arab quasi-consensus on the need to resolve the Syrian crisis.” The vast majority of Arab countries (central countries in the Arab world, such as Egypt and the Arab Gulf countries, mainly the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Algeria) supported Jordan’s position.
In al-Nawaisah’s view, the Jordanian declaration on the initiative may have been “preemptive” of the Arab summit to be held in Algeria early next November, in which “the Syrian crisis file would certainly be present.”
He added that the Arab, regional, and international climate had changed a lot over the past years, “and perhaps everyone has come to the conviction that the Arabs who have chosen since 2011 to isolate Syria from the League of Arab States and abandon its file have now felt the great loss suffered by the Arab world as a whole, and not just the Syrian state and people”.
During the past months, several visits, political moves, and diplomatic statements led by a group of countries have been active and have pushed for the return of the regime, which has been met with categorical rejection by some participating countries under the current circumstances, therefore dividing Arab countries dealing with the “return” file into two contradictory camps.
Besides Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, the Sultanate of Oman, Lebanon, and Iraq support the regime’s return to the Arab scene for various reasons, as Lebanon and Iraq see eye-to-eye with the regime, at least on matters of refugees and energy issues. On the other hand, it is countered by the refusal of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which reveals the incompatibility of the UAE and the two Gulf states in dealing with the Syrian file, despite the almost unity of visions on many regional and international issues, at least between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Despite repeated Egyptian statements about restoring order in the “Arab fold,” Intelligence Online website reported early last July that Egypt opposed the return of Syria to the League of Arab States (LAS), which will hold its summit next November, an Arab-heavy refusal given that Cairo has been the main headquarters of LAS since its founding in 1945.
Meanwhile, strategist Pr. Amer al-Sabayleh believes that the Arabs are not yet united on this vision, considering that there is no real ground for understanding among the Arabs on the issue of a solution in Syria; it is difficult to find a ground for Arab consensus regarding this matter. Although there are undoubtedly shifts and changing priorities, there is no real vision for reaching a consensus on this issue.
In turn, political researcher Firas Faham said that Arab countries viewed what was happening in Syria differently, adding that the mobilization of an Arab position in the Syrian file had previously been experimented with but without achieving hoped results. Therefore, the Arab countries were convinced to coordinate with the actors in the file in accordance with political changes; for instance, they cooperated with Russia to control Iranian influence, while Qatar coordinated with Turkey as a key actor in the file.
What are the initiative’s chances of success?
Researcher Firas Faham and strategist Pr. Amer al-Sabayleh agreed that the chances of success of this initiative were “weak”, amid their agreement on the rationale for their vision.
Researcher Firas Faham justified his view that there are many changes that have taken place in the Syrian scene for years to date, amid the changing priorities of regional and global countries in general and their preoccupation with other files. Saudi Arabia or the UAE are not likely to escalate against Russia through Syria at this time, given the existence of understandings for oil pumping within OPEC. In addition, there is Saudi discomfort with the approach and behavior of US President Joe Biden’s administration, which prompted the Gulf states to try to pursue a balanced approach to relations or a multi-axis foreign policy by establishing relations with China and Russia, which results in caution in dealing with the Syrian dossier.
The Jordanian strategist, Pr. Amer al-Sabayleh believes that the chances of this initiative’s success are “slim” because the international sentiment around Syria today is completely different for the international community seeing that it is viewed from the perspective of Russia. He added that this move is “nothing more than an attempt at filling the void, and it cannot be relied upon to find a genuine solution that places the Syrian crisis in the international scene so that it could be ended with an international consensus.”
In turn, political researcher, Zaid al-Nawaisah, considered that the chances of success of this initiative were “relatively greater” than all the attempts, although rare. “The calm that Syria is experiencing today, despite the challenging economic and living conditions imposed by the blockade on Syria, has created a sense of optimism amid a number of central Arab states feeling the need to put an end to the whole thing.”
In al-Nawaisah’s view, international situations, especially in light of the “complexities created by the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, is a factor that may hinder any settlement in Syria.”
According to the study issued by Jusoor for Studies, Jordan’s initiative appears to be an attempt to maintain its presence as a regional and international actor by not antagonizing the regime and keeping it close to it to influence its security policy in preparation for any intervention or influence that the circumstances might dictate in the future.
The study predicted that no qualitative breakthrough is expected in the new initiative except to “demonstrate the Jordanian Kingdom’s ability and readiness to play once again the role of a mediator in the Syrian conflict.”
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