Hussam al-Mahmoud | Yamen Moghrabi | Jana al-Issa | Hassan Ibrahim
On June 25, Al-Majalla magazine published a detailed text of the Jordanian initiative presented by Amman for a political solution in Syria, including demands, proposals, and details calling on the regime to take many measures on the ground on the one hand, and what the regime aspires to achieve through this initiative, on the other hand.
The Jordanian activity in the Syrian file, which emerged with the talk of an “initiative” in 2021 that bore the name “non-paper,” returned strongly during the current year, in conjunction with repeated political meetings after the earthquake of last February 6, and the subsequent Arab “agreement” on the need not to allow the situation in Syria to remain as it is, in addition to the regression of the previous political paths, from “Geneva” to “Astana”.
After an introductory introduction explaining the reality of the situation in Syria, at the level of humanitarian needs, and the military and political situation, the initiative was divided according to three time tracks (in the short, medium and long term), without specifying the time for each of them, with many items proposed to be achieved at each stage.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses, with the help of a group of specialists following the file, the most prominent outlines of the initiative, the extent of its applicability, and the obstacles it faces, in addition to its unclear points.
What is the “Amman Initiative”?
After consultations and discussions with Arab and Western countries, the initiative came with amendments to the “non-paper” document, in which the term “Syrian government” was used, after the “Syrian regime” term was used in the “non-paper” text.
What is currently required is a political solution based on Security Council Resolution 2254, with the concerned external parties agreeing that there is no military solution to end the “crisis” in Syria, and that regime change is not an “effective goal.” In addition, Resolution 2254 is the best way forward. The current situation increases the suffering of the Syrians and strengthens the opponents, and the retreat or delay in the intervention leads to results that may not be changed.
Resolution 2254 (2015) further demands compliance with international law, stresses protection of civilians and unfettered humanitarian access, a nationwide ceasefire that is linked to the political process, addressing terrorism, implementing confidence-building measures, safe and voluntary refugee returns, and releasing arbitrarily detained persons.
The Arab-backed initiative proceeds according to the “supply and demand” approach, and it starts from the humanitarian situation and demands that Damascus grant international bodies and organizations access to areas under regime control, facilitate the arrival of aid by various means (cross borders and lines), and reach a mechanism that allows verification that donor aid reaches its final target audience.
At the same time, the regime offered investment in early recovery projects, within the sectors of water, health, education, housing and sanitation, in various regions of Syria.
The initiative dealt with the mechanism of dealing with the file of detainees in the short term, through the system providing detailed information to the United Nations offices about the beneficiaries of the presidential amnesty issued by the regime (April 2022), in addition to the arbitrary release of detainees, and the agreement on the gradual release of detainees. In addition, cooperation with the Red Cross to determine the whereabouts and fates of the missing and kidnapped, with the necessity of urging all Syrian parties and Turkey (close to the opposition and negotiating the regime to normalize political relations with it) to cooperate in releasing detainees, including military and security personnel working for the “Syrian army” and the “Syrian government.”
In its first phase (the short term), the initiative focuses on the file of the return of refugees, which constitutes a concern for the neighboring countries hosting them (Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon), as it calls for an official facilitation from the regime for their return to their lands and properties, in return for investing in areas to which the refugees are expected to return, according to a “pilot project,” starting from southern Syria.
In its second phase, it calls for the removal of Iranian forces from Syria, the reduction of the Iranian military presence there in terms of weapons and geography, the recovery of property acquired by Iran in Syria, the withdrawal of Shiite militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah, and addressing the concerns of neighboring countries about drug smuggling from Syria.
The third phase includes talking about “expected steps from Damascus,” including reforms to ensure a good government and prevent persecution, engaging in reconciliation with the former opposition (inside Syria), agreeing on a more comprehensive formula for governance, and elections under the supervision of the United Nations.
Within this phase as well, and in the long term, which is the most complex, the regime is required to declare an end to military operations in Syria related to the “armed conflict,” with the exception of combat training against parties designated by the UN, while offering the regime “incentives” that include funding for reconstruction, the lifting of sanctions, and the withdrawal of foreign forces, including those in northeastern Syria and the border al-Tanf region, noting that the implementation of such provisions could take place in the long run, under the heading of “withdrawal and integration.”
Timing has own messages
The details of the initiative were published about a week before the visit of the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, to Damascus, and his meeting with his counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, and the head of the regime, Bashar al-Assad, on July 3.
Safadi’s second visit after the earthquake (the first on February 15) came to discuss with al-Assad and Mekdad the efforts exerted to solve the “Syrian crisis” and a number of bilateral issues.
During his meeting with the Jordanian minister, al-Assad linked the return of the refugees to the deteriorating conditions in the areas under his control, stressing that the safe return of the refugees is a priority, with the necessity of securing the infrastructure for this return and the requirements of reconstruction and rehabilitation in all its forms, and supporting it with early recovery projects that enable the returnees to restore their normal life cycle.
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and the Director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, considered that the Jordanian visit was “embarrassing” to the regime. After the Syrian regime’s return to the Arab League, killings, arbitrary arrests, and kidnappings continued, leading to an escalation of violence at a time when the refugees are expected to return.
The value of the Syrian currency continued to decline after the return to the Arab League, in addition to the looting of real estate and property of Syrian citizens, the escalation of military targeting in northwestern Syria, and the killing and wounding of dozens by targeting a vegetable market in Idlib.
Lister said on Twitter that this means that “Jordan’s plan for the conditional re-involvement of the regime (referring to the political process) is no longer promising.”
On May 19, al-Assad participated in the Arab summit that was held in the Saudi city of Jeddah, after canceling the freeze on Syria’s membership in the Arab League, and the exchange of visits by the foreign ministers of the two parties (Damascus and Riyadh), and the Saudi conviction that encourages dialogue as a gateway to a solution, according to previous statements in this context by the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal bin Farhan.
At the beginning of the same month, Amman hosted a meeting at the level of foreign ministers for Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and the Syrian regime. It was called the “Amman Consultative Meeting.” It produced a statement that largely intersects with the items of the Jordanian initiative that were revealed.
Obstacle is in the application
The researcher in strategic and security studies, the retired Saudi Major General Abdullah Ghanem al-Qahtani, told Enab Baladi that the plan or initiative is good in appearance, but the problem is in the implementation, as it contains many fillings and ramifications and clauses that are illogical or unenforceable, referring to the Syrian regime’s demand to remove the Iranian forces from Syria, in exchange for reconstruction and lifting of sanctions.
Al-Qahtani wonders, is al-Assad’s regime capable of expelling the Russian and Iranian forces and the armies on the ground, and does it guarantee the exit of the Russians and Americans, and who will take over the al-Hawl camp and return those in it to their countries, and does a sane person believe that Iran can accept Amman initiative? And who is stronger on the ground, the regime, the Iranian militias, the Russians, the Americans, or the armed opposition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and he adds, “The issue is romantic in its form, and the plan is good if it is implementable.”
Is Assad’s regime capable of removing the Russian and Iranian forces and armies on the ground, and can it guarantee the exit of the Russians and Americans?
Does a sane person believe that Iran can accept this initiative? The issue is romantic in its form, and the plan is good if it is implementable.
Abdullah Ghanem al-Qahtani, a researcher in strategic and security studies and a retired Saudi major general
The researcher pointed out the regime’s inability to fulfill this initiative and expel Iran, referring to the Iraqi experience, and the survival of Iranian militias in Iraq despite the American influence there, which makes the issue more complicated in Syria, in light of the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its affiliated brigades and groups.
“I do not think that Iran will leave Syria under any circumstances, and the regime does not have the tools to remove non-Syrian military forces from Syria. No one can force the American and Russian forces to leave Syria, as the interests of these two parties outside Syria control everything,” al-Qahtani said.
The security expert also pointed to the issue of Jordanian consultations with the United States and Russia about the plan, indicating that the American and Russian approval of the initiative requires (if true) a Security Council resolution to endorse it or approve its amendments, which obliges the other parties to implement it.
Bilal Salaymeh, a researcher in international relations told Enab Baladi that the initiative is a Jordanian attempt to take the initiative by presenting a vision that primarily responds to Jordan’s needs.
This is evident through the demands or goals it seeks to achieve, as it comes in response to the warnings and fears of neighboring countries, led by Jordan, whether with regard to drugs or the return of refugees, and even the exit of Iranian militias from Syria.
The initiative comes in parallel with the state of stumbling that the political process has reached, as the Geneva peace talks is stalled, and the Astana track has reached its limit in what it can present on the ground, which paved the way for the initiative to take its momentum in conjunction with the zero-level problems status on the regional level, which pushed the initiative forward.
What also prompted this trend, according to Salaymeh, was the “step by step” principle put forward by the UN envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, as part of the “confidence-building” measures, and as a negotiating track, which helped some countries adopt their own concept on this principle, and engage in bilateral tracks with the regime away from the overall political process.
“It is unlikely that the initiative will achieve a breakthrough in the political process, because it aims at simple steps related to improving the behavior of the regime in some files.
There is no vision about a radical solution in Syria and the regime is not interested in taking any step from its side, especially regarding the refugee file, as it is not interested in their return from neighboring countries, in addition to its inability to respond to some demands, including ending the Iranian presence,” the researcher added.
It can be said that the initiative limits the entire political process to the idea of “confidence-building” steps on the part of the regime and other countries, which the regime did not follow even when it was facing military danger and political threat, and after its partial return to the political scene, and the achievement of some security stability in the country, at least in the areas under its control, the (Syrian regime) has no motive to engage in “confidence-building” exchange steps, according to Salaymeh.
The initiative came loaded with many details and axes related to the Syrian file, with some points that did not seem consistent with each other, as it does not see regime change as an “effective goal.”
However, within its third phase, it indicates the need to agree to hold elections under international supervision, and at the same time talks about the importance of agreeing on an original formula for more comprehensive governance.
The opposition was mentioned by its explicit name only twice in the initiative that talks about a solution, replacing it with the mention of “the Syrian parties.” However, the first reference to it was indicative of the external opposition, by calling on all countries to use their influence with the “Syrian government” and the Syrian opposition, to advance in the peace process and confidence-building steps,
The third phase of the initiative limited the issue of engaging in reconciliation between the regime and the “former opposition,” which it referred to as “the opposition inside Syria,” without mentioning the bodies of the Syrian opposition that the regime itself meets within the course of the work of the Constitutional Committee, which has been suspended since June 2022.
The initiative also lacks any clear timeline for implementation, showing the start date of implementation, the specific time for each stage, and the deadline for completing its implementation, with only “short, medium and long term” time tracks being mentioned, which al-Qahtani considered as an indication of the failure to reach a tangible and realistic implementation for this vision.
Thorny issues: Refugees and drugs
The dilemma of illegal cross-border Captagon drug trade through Jordan was present in the initiative, as it is one of the issues that concern Jordan and the Arab Gulf countries as well, but without focusing on this file or giving a wide space in the initiative, despite the link between instability and the escalation of drug smuggling across the border with Syria.
The Amman Consultative Meeting, the Arab Ministerial Meeting in Jeddah on April 14, the closing statements of the two meetings, continuous statements by officials of neighboring countries about drug smuggling from Syria, leading to talk about an offer made by the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, to al-Assad, on April 18 during his visit to Damascus, the content of which was to compensate the Syrian regime for the loss of the Captagon drug trade in the event that it stopped, all of this and the smuggling attempts did not stop.
In conjunction with the frequent and almost daily announcements by Jordan and Saudi Arabia about the seizure of drug shipments that include varying quantities of the narcotic Captagon tablets, but they are huge in number, the southern Syrian city of Daraa witnessed rare Jordanian air strikes on May 8, hitting an Iran-linked drugs factory and killing Marai al-Ramathan, a smuggler allegedly behind big hauls across the two countries’ border, local and intelligence sources told Reuters.
The airstrike came one day before the regime participated in the Baghdad International Conference on Drug Control on May 9.
As before, on the 4th of the same month, Jordan threatened a military operation in Syria to eliminate drug smuggling, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ayman Safadi, stated to CNN.
On May 1, the Jordanian authorities thwarted an attempt to smuggle 133,000 Captagon tablets from Syrian territory, coinciding with the arrival of the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal al-Mekdad, to Amman to participate in its consultative meeting.
On April 13, more than 3.6 million amphetamine pills concealed in a potato shipment were confiscated by Saudi authorities in the Riyadh region, the Saudi News Agency reported.
The drug haul had an estimated street value of approximately $36m to $90m, according to research published in the International Addiction Review Journal, which said users paid in the range of $10-$25 a pill.
In another indication of the seriousness of the file, the Jordanian king asked, in early March, the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, for help in waging the growing “drug war” along the Jordanian-Syrian land borders.
The Jordanian king also held Iran-backed militias responsible for drug smuggling at the border, and King Abdullah II discussed with the US Secretary the escalation of the Iranian-backed militias’ consolidation in southern Syria, which officials said had intensified drug smuggling across its borders, to reach the Arab Gulf markets.
Syrian regime has financial benefits
According to many US reports and statements, in addition to the US-British sanctions issued on March 28, the drug file has links to the Assad family and the “Fourth Division” of the “Syrian Army” led by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the regime’s president.
The sanctions included persons and entities responsible for the production and export of the drug Captagon in Syria, and Samer Kamal al-Assad and Wassim Badi al-Assad, two cousins of Bashar al-Assad, were included on their lists.
According to a statement by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, Samer al-Assad supervises the main Captagon production facilities in Latakia governorate, in coordination with the “Fourth Division” and some members of “Hezbollah.”
The Jordanian expert on strategic security, Omar al-Raddad, believes that the Captagon file is linked to the influence of the various militias and their roles, and to being a source of income for the regime.
Al-Raddad explained to Enab Baladi that the regime’s seriousness ranges from sending messages to countries concerned with the file to bargaining, especially since the decision to end the manufacture and smuggling of drugs is in the hands of militias and personalities within the regime that differ from those discussing the file with Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The drug file came in the initiative along with the security and military parts, which constitute the second phase of the initiative, referring to “steps to address the Iranian presence in Syria,” which means that the drug file is linked to Iran.
The initiative also indicated that it is linked to other files and issues, as it is not isolated from other files referred to in the resolutions of the Arab Summit (last May 19) regarding the return of refugees and the political settlement, according to Omar al-Raddad, who pointed out the difficulty of the success of one track without another within the initiative.
According to a joint investigation by the BBC and the Investigative Journalism Network (OCCRP), released on June 27, there are direct links between the Captagon trade and a high-ranking officer in the Fourth Division, Maj. Gen. Ghassan Bilal, the second man after Maher al-Assad in the Fourth Division.
The investigation also shows the involvement of Hezbollah in the file of industry and smuggling.
In the same context, the BBC quoted the former US envoy to Syria, Joel Rayburn, as saying, “The volume of revenues far exceeds the budget of the Syrian state, and if Captagon revenues stop or are disrupted, I do not think that the Assad regime can survive.”
No concessions to refugees
In addition to its detailed presence in the Jordanian initiative, and the talk about a “pilot project” for the return of about a thousand Syrian refugees. Since the Syrian regime’s participation in the preparatory meetings for the Arab summit, the statements of regime officials focused on early recovery and investment in Syria to help the return of refugees.
The refugee file, which occupies the forefront of Arab officials’ discourse and discussions with the regime, was linked by the initiative to “confidence-building steps,” which indicated that its goal is to achieve a gradual change in the regime’s behavior in return for incentives set in the interest of the Syrian people, and to enable an environment conducive to the return of refugees.
During a meeting with the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Al-Assad linked the issue of the return of refugees to the deteriorating conditions in the areas under his control, stressing that the safe return of refugees is a priority, with the necessity of securing the infrastructure for this return and the requirements of reconstruction and rehabilitation in all its forms, and supporting it with early recovery projects that enable the returnees to restore their normal life cycle.
The head of the “Peace, Justice and Documentation” organization, Anwar Magni, believes that the issue of return must be discussed in two directions, the desire of the regime and the desire of the displaced. The regime does not want a free return, and its acceptance of concessions in this file does not mean its acceptance of the displaced, ruling out concessions related to changing the mechanism of dealing with the Syrians and stopping the violations.
In addition, the Arab countries do not want to perpetuate a demographic change, and seek to remove the Iranian presence, in addition to seeking to reduce the Syrian presence on their lands, and at the same time, reach a political solution that dispels fears and border security risks, and deals with the drug issue.
How does the regime handle refugees’ return files?
The director of the Middle East Center for Studies, Safwan al-Muwaqqat, believes that the file constitutes the strongest negotiation file with the regional countries and the European Union in the eyes of the regime. Joseph Daher, a researcher in political economy, considered that the regime does not have the economic or material capabilities in terms of infrastructure to receive millions of refugees.
In his interview with Enab Baladi, Anwar Magni indicated that the regime deals with the file as an inhumane political file, and seeks political and economic gains in exchange for their return.
Military reality is a stumbling block
The step that the initiative considered the most complicated was the issue of ending Iran’s military presence, including the Shiite militias close to it, such as “Hezbollah,” and announcing the end of military operations related to the “conflict” in Syria, a proposition coinciding with the increase in the complexity of the military scene and the growing influence, power and field deployment of military forces in Syria.
According to a research analysis conducted by the Jusoor for Studies center, in cooperation with the Informagene data analysis and visualization platform, the number of foreign forces’ military sites in Syria reached 830 until July 2023, distributed under the dominance of countries and influential parties on the ground (the International Coalition led by the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran).
Colonel, former pilot of the regime forces, Mustafa Bakour, questioned the regime’s ability to push Iran to withdraw from Syria, given that it was originally supported on the ground by Iran and in the air by Russia.
Bakour told Enab Baladi that the regime realizes that any Iranian withdrawal from Syria means weakening it, and it is not about replacing the Arabs with Iran.
During his meeting with the Iranian President, Ibrahim Raisi, in Damascus in early May, the head of the Syrian regime described the relationship with Iran as “rich in content, experiences, and visions.”
In an interview with Russia Today (RT) channel, in mid-March, he indicated that the Syrian arena is no longer a place of Iranian-Saudi conflict, as it was at some stages and by some parties.
“Talk about a Syrian-Iranian relationship that must be severed has not been raised with Syria for many years. I think there is an understanding of the nature of this relationship,” al-Assad added.
In the same context, the former colonel in the regime forces stressed that when talking about Iran, this also means the Iranian sectarian militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah, and all the forces operating with the support and direction of Iran.
Where does the West stand?
The Jordanian initiative dates back to 2021, when Amman prepared an official paper, which included its vision for a solution in Syria. It was shared and discussed by the Jordanian king in separate meetings with the American and Russian presidents.
The text of the initiative stated that the paper was amended after consultations with Arab and Western countries (without being mentioned in detail), to reach its latest version, which accurately included the required steps from Damascus and other capitals.
The text of the initiative literally included the agreement of the concerned external parties (without specifying them either) on the five basic points within the initiative.
Washington, tacit approval
On the 7th of last June, the statement issued by the joint ministerial meeting between the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council states and the United States of America included a renewed commitment to reaching a political solution in Syria, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and as agreed upon during the Amman Consultative Meeting on May 1, during which it was agreed to launch an Arab role in resolving the Syrian crisis on the basis of the Jordanian initiative.
According to a report issued by the Jussoor for Studies Center, the United States seems more willing to express a clear position towards the Jordanian initiative, following the meeting of the Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a position that may show conditional support for this initiative and deals with it as one of the policies of containment towards the regime aimed at modifying its behavior.
Despite what is being said in the media about America’s tacit approval of the recent Arab moves, the announced statements of its officials did not reflect any change in the content represented in continuing to support efforts aimed at a political solution in accordance with Resolution 2254.
Enab Baladi addressed the US State Department regarding the US position on the initiative and its comment on it, or its involvement in it, and whether the White House had reservations about any of the initiative clauses, but the US official response did not provide direct answers.
The response provided by an official at the US State Department (whose name was not mentioned) stated that the United States supports the Syrian operation facilitated by the United Nations, which was developed within the parameters of Security Council Resolution 2254, and continues to reaffirm to the international community its belief that the greater stability in Syria and the region can only be achieved through a political process that represents the will of all Syrians.
Regarding the extent of Washington’s involvement in the consultations that preceded the initiative, the official at the ministry said that America is consistent in its message to all parties, although the Syrian-led political solution that represents the will of all Syrians as set out in Resolution 2254 remains the only viable solution. It continues to urge all parties to fully participate in this process, and to support the efforts of the UN envoy to facilitate a political solution.
The official stressed that his country remains engaged with the United Nations and its allies and international partners to encourage all possible efforts to advance the political track.
European Union is also present
In early April, the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, met with the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in the European Union, Josep Borrell, to discuss a number of issues, including the Jordanian initiative, during a visit in which a number of European officials met.
Since the beginning of this year, the Jordanian capital, Amman, has witnessed several meetings centered on the Syrian file, one of which took place last March, with the participation of representatives of the European Union, the Arab League and 11 active countries, and included discussions on the situation in Syria in the presence of the UN envoy, Geir Pedersen.
The European Union did not issue an official comment on its position on the initiative. To obtain more information in this context, Enab Baladi contacted the office of the head of the European Union mission to Syria, Dan Stoinescu, via an email, without receiving a response until the preparation of this file.
The High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell, said during his meeting with the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, on June 18, that the European Union stands firm in its position on Syria, as it showed at the seventh Brussels donors’ conference.
From the League’s headquarters in Cairo, Borrell touched on canceling the regime’s membership freeze in the League of Arab States, stressing that the European Union’s position on Syria will not change until the required progress is achieved in implementing Security Council Resolution 2254.
In separate statements, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, during her visit to Qatar last June, indicated the need for the Syrian regime to implement all its obligations as a condition for accepting its presence internationally and regionally.
For her part, German Foreign Minister Analina Baerbock warned, when she visited Saudi Arabia last May, of what she described as the “unconditional normalization” of relations with al-Assad.
After meeting her Saudi counterpart, Faisal bin Farhan, she said, “Every step towards Assad must depend on tangible concessions.”
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