by Giorgio Cafiero
After Syria’s crisis erupted in 2011, Jordanian-Syrian relations suffered immensely. Early in the conflict, Damascus began accusing Amman of financing and training “terrorist” organizations fighting against the Syrian regime. In May 2014, the Hashemite kingdom expelled Syria’s ambassador to Jordan, Bahjat Suleiman, claiming that he had “crossed the lines in diplomatic rules” regarding his commentary about Jordan in both formal and social-media platforms.
The Syrian regime’s survival strategy has resulted in a major influx of Iranian and non-Syrian Shia militias into land near Jordanian territory, which has deeply unsettled Amman. Although King Abdullah II called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down in 2011, when the Hashemite kingdom was experiencing much of its own internal instability, Jordan was never as committed to regime change in Damascus as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were. To Amman’s credit, Jordanian officials have wisely staked out pragmatic positions on Syria, which have been shaped by the Hashemite kingdom’s legitimate security concerns as Syria’s neighbor and home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
After the barbaric Islamic State (ISIS or IS) killing of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh in early 2015, which fueled intense anger in Jordan and outrage throughout the world, Jordan began seeing IS as a far graver threat to the Hashemite kingdom than the Assad regime. By September of that year, when Jordan openly supported Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria, Jordan’s strategies vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis became further removed from Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha’s, which opposed Moscow’s role in Syria, at least initially. The leadership in Amman also clarified that Jordanian support for “moderate” rebels in Syria was about protecting the Hashemite kingdom from IS, not ousting Assad.
Throughout 2017 and 2018, Jordan’s assessment that Assad’s regime would survive has been further verified by scores of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) victories that have left the rebels with only one last stronghold in Idlib along the Turkish border. Ultimately, in the interest of protecting the Hashemite kingdom’s security from violence and terrorism above all other considerations, Jordan coordinated the “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria with Russia and the United States in 2017.
Jordan’s Thawing Relationship with Damascus
Since the Assad regime seized control of the Syrian side of the Nasib crossing with Jordan in mid-2018 against the backdrop of Amman and Moscow deepening their partnership, there has been growing speculation that Amman and Damascus are moving toward normalizing ties. Indeed, the past few weeks have been significant for the bilateral relationship from an economic perspective. On September 4, an 80-member delegation from Jordan, representing the country’s private sector, went to the Syrian capital to discuss joint ventures. Eight days later, Jordanian officials and their Syrian counterparts held technical discussions about reopening the Nasib crossing. According to officials in Damascus, the border crossing will open on October 10.
The key question is whether this effort to restore trade relations suggests that both regimes are on the verge of restoring full diplomatic relations. Damascus is keen to do so, but Amman is hesitating.
Further normalization of relations with Syria could prove highly beneficial for Jordan economically. The reopening of the Saudi-Iraqi border crossing has diminished the importance of the Jordanian-Saudi border to Saudi Arabia. The Qatar crisis, meanwhile, hurt Jordan as a transit country for goods exported from Europe and the Levant to Doha via the Qatari-Saudi border. As a result, Jordanians will eagerly take advantage of the Nasib border crossing’s reopening. The volume of pre-war trade between the two countries was roughly $750 million. Since the crisis broke out in 2011 the trade volume has essentially decreased to zero. The closure of the Nasib crossing essentially shut down Jordanian exports to Europe and had a particularly negative impact on the provinces of Ramtha and Irbid, whose trade was highly reliant on Syrian goods in the pre-2011 period.
To be sure, opening the Nasib crossing for bilateral trade and restoring full diplomatic ties with the Damascus regime are two separate questions for the Jordanians. Although there are legitimate security concerns about the border crossing’s re-opening, Jordanians generally agree that it makes sense to do so from the standpoint of their country’s economic health.
Jordan’s Complicated Political Dilemmas
Politics make the question of diplomatic ties extremely delicate. Since many Jordanians supported the Syrian rebellion, a sizable number would oppose Amman restoring full diplomatic relations with a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands. But other Jordanians sided with the Damascus regime, viewing the armed oppositionists as the proxies of outside powers determined to divide Arabs and transform Syria into a failed state. However, a consensus has emerged among Jordanians that their country would suffer from the permanent fragmentation or “Somaliazation” of Syria. Doubtless, the presence of non-state actors in Syrian land near the Jordanian border represents such a grave threat that Amman has cooperated with Russia (and by extension the SAA too) to counter it.
Amman has been slowly making a pivot to Moscow since Russia began directly intervening militarily in Syria in September 2015. This realignment has only accelerated since the Trump administration made other decisions, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that troubled Jordan’s leadership. A full restoration of relations between the two Arab regimes would advance Moscow’s interests in positioning itself as a driver of Middle Eastern diplomacy, but also in terms of stepping up regional coordination in the struggle against (what the Kremlin sees as) terrorist groups operating in Syria near the Jordanian border.
Yet a rapprochement between Amman and Damascus could complicate Jordan’s relations with various regional and international allies, chiefly the United States and other Western powers. As much as the Jordanian leadership has been keen to strengthen its partnership with Moscow since Russia asserted itself as a pillar of a new Levantine security architecture beginning in fall 2015, the historically pro-Western monarchy in Jordan is not on the verge of walking away from Washington or London. Amman’s decision about engagement with Syria’s leadership will unquestionably bear major implications for the Hashemite kingdom’s position in the Arab world’s geopolitical order, given Jordan’s interests in remaining close to the United States while simultaneously maintaining its new position as Russia’s “strongest ally in the Middle East.”
At this juncture, Jordan faces a difficult dilemma regarding its relationship with the Syrian regime. Added to the mix are complicated questions about the predominantly Sunni refugees from Syria in Jordan (numbering 650,000). Could any future agreement credibly guarantee their safety after returning home when the civil war ends given all the legitimate concerns about the regime’s vengeance?
The future trajectory of relations between these two regimes will inevitably have a major impact on the Syrian crisis and the future (in)security landscape of the Daraa area where the anti-Assad uprising erupted seven-and-a-half years ago. Jordan choosing to normalize relations with Damascus would mark a major boost to the Assad regime, especially in the aftermath of the Syrian foreign minister’s warm encounter last month with his Bahraini counterpart at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Despite all its crimes, the Syrian regime appears to be returning to the world of Arab diplomacy.