Jordan Threads the Needle Between Moscow and Washington

by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Al-Makahleh

King Abdullah II of Jordan visited Moscow on February 15 to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin and senior Russian officials as well as clergymen. Jordan feels isolated because of the Jerusalem issue and other regional crises, and it is particularly vexed about two matters regarding the ongoing Syrian civil war.

First, Amman does not want to be a magnet for extremist and terrorist groups. The king’s message to Putin was to keep Jordan out of the fray as much as he can. Second, Amman will not accept any spillover from the Syrian conflict and will not bear any more influx of refugees.

“I do feel that the international community has let down our people, who have paid and shouldered the burden of responsibility of 20 per cent of our country of Syrian refugees,” the king said in a recent interview.

The quest by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to pass the “century deal” at the expense of the Jordanians and Palestinians has left Jordan questioning its alignment with Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh. It is now looking to both Moscow and Ankara for support in its stand against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

King Abdullah II has visited Russia 19 times since his ascension to the throne in 1999. This latest visit is significant because of the delegation accompanying the king, which included the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Mahmoud Freihat (who is also the king’s military adviser), Adnan Jundi (the director of the General Intelligence Department), and National Policies Council Rapporteur Abdullah Woreikat. Thus, talks focused on countering extremism and combatting terrorism. Given that Russia has between 2,000-5,000 of its own citizens fighting in Syria with armed groups, and Jordan has very good information about these groups, the two countries have vested interests in greater cooperation at the intelligence level.

Bilateral military cooperation has been improving since 1999 between both countries with a number of deals such as “Kornet” anti-tank systems and the portable “Igla” ground-air defense system. Moscow has already started producing RPGs in Jordan as well. Sources close to the Jordanian and Russian governments believe that 2018 will be special for both countries as they mark the 55th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties.

The king commended Russia’s supportive role in promoting a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For the first time, the king feels he is closer to Russia than to any other international power. At the moment, Jordan is seeking Russian military assistance in southern Syria to keep that area a safe haven, and to avoid any further escalation between the Syrian army and Israeli forces, which erupted earlier this month and led to the downing of an Israeli F-16.

Jordan is also concerned about Iranian efforts to expand its influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Since Iran is a Russian ally, Amman hopes that Moscow can pressure Iranians to stay away from Jordanian borders and avoid skirmishes with the Jordanian army or with the Israeli troops. At this point, Jordan does not want further deterioration of security on its borders because it has its own internal security and economic concerns. That was the main reason for the separate ceasefire for southern Syria brokered by Washington and Moscow in the summer of 2017: to address apprehensions by Amman and Tel Aviv about Iran’s military presence in areas adjacent to Jordan and Israel.

King Abdullah II is also looking for greater Russian support for its custodianship of the holy sites in East Jerusalem. Thus he met with Vladimir Gundyayev, the patriarch of Moscow and the rest of Russia, to discuss the peaceful coexistence between religions. Both sides stressed the interfaith dialogue that Jordan has been calling for since a long time ago. The king also met with Sheikh Rawi Ain El Din, the president of the Council of Fatwas in Russia, and other Islamic scholars, to convey the message that mosques can play an important role to promote a tolerant Islam that repudiates violence and hatred. Jordan can also play a role in the Muslim community in Russia since the kingdom has very strong ties with the Muslim republics in Central Asia and in the Caucasus. “We have a duty to uphold the true tolerant image of Islam,” said the king.

Jordan and Russia are currently building on their common interests. Moscow needs a pragmatic partner in the region that can help Russia acquire a more influential role in the Muslim world. Amman regards Moscow as an honest broker that can mediate between Palestinians and Israelis to resolve the deadlock. Russia’s decision to include Jordan in the Syrian peace negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, is another sign of the growing relationship and of Jordan’s efforts to further hedge its bets with the United States.

Shehab Al-Makahleh is president of the Jordan-based Political Studies of the Middle East Center and the CEO of Geostrategic and Media Center. He is a senior adviser at Gulf States Analytics and a columnist at Middle East and international media outlets. Maria Al-Makahleh is a prominent political commentator, researcher, and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub) and executive director of Geostrategic Media. Photo: King Abdullah II and Vladimir Putin.

*An earlier version of this text misidentified the National Policies Council Rapporteur as Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad (it is Abdullah Woreikat) and inadvertently attributed the downing of the F-16 to a clash between Jordanian and Israeli forces (it was Syrian forces).

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  1. Where was the king at the onset of Syria being attacked by everyone? He didn’t see that coming from his brothers in GCC and didn’t say a word to them? Sorry buddy it’s too late!

  2. Jordan has been a key partner in the US-led coalition fighting (unsuccessfully) for regime change in Syria. Jordan has long been a staunch US ally, with forces serving in Afghanistan (another failure), hosting a large annual military exercise (Eager Lion, last held in May 2017), and also hosting permanent US military employments including 1,500 American soldiers, a squadron of F-16s, a Patriot missile battery, and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.

    That was then, this is now. The US has lost to Russia in Syria and it’s time to change alliances. Putin probably told the king ‘no more eager lions’ in Jordan, but that’s just a guess. We’ll see.

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