Is Jordan signalling a shift in its Syria strategy?
Jordan’s position towards the Syrian civil war has often appeared unclear: It supports moderate rebel groups from the Syrian Free Army (FSA) yet there is no great display of animosity between Amman and Damascus.
The Syrian regime has refrained from painting Jordan with the same damning brush as it does Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In turn, the Jordanians have not been as vocal in the call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, as some of their allies have.
Some analysts said Jordan has been maintaining a balancing act: accommodating the position of its US and Gulf financers without adopting an anti-Assad stance wholeheartedly.
There are many tribal relations between Jordanians and Syrians and King Abdullah II cannot afford to appear to be totally indifferent to the death and suffering of civilians at the hands of pro-Assad forces.
There are more than 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Observers, however, pointed to a recent change in Jordan’s policy towards the Syrian conflict that appears to focus on the increasing threat of terror from Islamic State (ISIS) militants and other groups.
“Analysts say that these developments pushed Jordan out of its so-called grey zone and disengage from the Gulf position towards the Syrian issue,” wrote Khalil Qandil in the Jordanian website Assabeel.net.
Jordanian political analyst Amer al-Sabaylah said Jordan was preparing to protect its borders from threats of terror and was looking at Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria as an example.
“Jordan’s priority in fighting terror requires finding a partner in the Syrian south to replicate the Turkish intervention in Syria but without a direct Jordanian involvement,” Sabaylah told Assabeel.net.
His views were shared by other Jordanian analysts.
“Unlike Turkey, Jordan cannot afford nor does it want to carry out a military incursion into southern Syria, a region that is vital to its national security,” wrote Amman-based commentator Osama al-Sharif in the Jordan Times.
“Instead, it is building a coalition of moderate rebel groups and local tribal fighters to fend off possible advance by Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “It is also carrying out pre-emptive aerial strikes against Daesh positions in southern Syria.”
Jordanian political science Professor Hassan al-Khalidi told the website 24.ae that Amman was primarily concerned with its own security.
“The Jordanian manoeuvres in the Syrian issue are primarily aimed at protecting (Jordan’s) northern borders in the event that they are flooded with the remnants of terrorist groups fleeing areas under pressure in Syria and Iraq.”
Brigadier-General Sami Kafawin, the commander of Jordan’s border guards, told the Associated Press that ISIS was expanding its influence in a makeshift border camp that hosts tens of thousands of displaced Syrians.
Jordan also appears to fear that the FSA faction it backs in Southern Syria would be weakened by the resumed Russian air strikes against moderate rebels in Deraa, which would allow ISIS and other radical groups to flourish on its borders.
As a result of new clashes between FSA rebels and the regime, two projectiles reportedly fell on the Jordan side of the border, slightly wounding one person.
Diplomatically, at the invitation of Russia, Jordan attended as a monitor the latest round of talks between the Syrian regime and rebels in Astana. It was also invited to be present during the Geneva talks on February 23rd.
King Abdullah II had also met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a staunch supporter of Assad, to discuss the Syrian crisis.
The pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Addiyar reported that top intelligence official Ali Mamlouk recently met with the Jordanian king in Amman to “coordinate together against terror”.
Many Syrians have looked with suspicion towards what they say is a friendly relationship between Assad and Amman, despite Jordan’s backing of the FSA.
They say that King Abdullah’s support of Syrian moderate rebels has always been in Jordan’s favour — to counter radical groups — and that Amman is now being more open about it, dismissing the suggestion that there is a shift in strategy.
The Syrians are not alone in thinking that. Jordanian analyst Fahad al-Khitan said that Jordan’s priority for a long time has been to secure its border areas from the threat of militant groups such as ISIS. “Nothing changed in that strategy,” he wrote in the Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad.
Jordan will be hosting the next Arab League annual meeting on March 29th but, as was the case in previous summits, Assad will not be invited since the bloc suspended Syria’s membership in 2011.
“How the invitations are dealt with will be based on the decisions of the Arab League, and we will abide by what it has decided,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for the Syrian government to be permitted to rejoin the bloc but Jordan is unable to fulfil Moscow’s request, even if it wanted to.
Mamoon Alabbasi is an Arab Weekly contributing editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter @MamoonAlabbasi