By Eleanor Beevor
- King Abdullah of Jordan is in talks with President Putin
- Syria’s de-escalation zones will be high on the agenda, but Russia’s recent attacks inside them has undermined their credibility
- Jordan has backed de-escalation, but has its own troubles to consider
- While it will push for stability, Jordan cannot risk losing cooperation with Russia
Soon after King Abdullah of Jordan touched down in Moscow on Feb. 14, he appeared on a Russian news network, and confirmed he was here to visit “…my brother, President Putin, as a friend, a dear friend of his, as well as a friend of Russia.”
It was a busy day for the king, since he had earlier also met U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. King Abdullah and Tillerson re-affirmed the strength of the U.S.-Jordanian relationship, and Tillerson pledged $1.3 billion in aid to Jordan over the next five years.
This was despite Jordan’s voting to condemn President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at the U.N. vote in December, and Trump’s threat that countries who voted against the U.S. would lose American aid contributions.
Jordan’s Juggling Act
Jordan’s success at maintaining cordial, or at least functional relations with the majority of states involved in the Syrian conflict is striking. It remains the only conduit of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in Syria, an invaluable role that will no doubt be critical to the war’s eventual end. Yet Jordan is faced with its own challenges, and how it manages its links to Russia will dramatically affect not only Jordan’s future, but Syria’s as well.
Jordan has so far exercised an ambiguous policy towards Syria. It supported the Syrian opposition in the early days of the conflict, in a diplomatic and occasionally operational capacity. However, more recent security and socio-economic pressures have forced something of a change in tune. Samuel Ramani, a specialist in Russian relations with the Middle East at the University of Oxford, told Al Bawaba:
“Jordan's approach to Syria has changed markedly over the course of the conflict, and in a way that mirrors its broader security objectives. Once the threat of ISIS rose in 2014, Jordan's position towards Assad became somewhat more dovish, as it viewed the spread of ISIS into its borders as the most important security concern. Jordan also re-established diplomatic links with the Syrian government, and Assad toned down his bellicose rhetoric towards Jordan."
Now that ISIS has weakened, Jordan is embracing a stabilizing role in Syria, officially equidistant between Washington and Moscow; and Assad and the opposition. But Jordan's willingness to force de-escalation and push for peace in areas where Assad believes military operations are still legitimate has created tensions between Amman and Damascus.”
A Syrian girl rides her bicycle in an almost deserted street in the Teshrin neighborhood of the Qabun area in Damascus (AFP File)
These controversial de-escalation zones in Syria will likely dominate King Abdullah’s meeting with Putin. Two sets of de-escalation zones were brokered in mid-2017. Zones in Idlib Province, northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, were agreed upon in negotiations between Russia, Iran and Turkey in the Kazakh capital Astana.
A further de-escalation zone was agreed between the U.S., Russia and Jordan in the areas of Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida, on the southern edge of Syria by the Jordanian and Israeli borders. Whilst these zones should in theory be safe areas for civilians, the reality has proved troublesome. The trouble is that there has been a failure to agree on whether force inside these zones is legitimate in certain circumstances.
Russia has been engaged in a joint offensive with Syrian forces in Idlib since January, providing air support to the Syrian Armed Force’s ground offensive. And while East Ghouta has been hit by an intense bombardment from Assad’s forces in recent weeks, with an estimated 200 civilians killed in the last four days, Russia has rejected UN calls for a ceasefire as “not realistic”.
While the southern provinces under Jordan’s watch have retained a degree of stability so far, reports of Syrian troops massing in the south, and fears of Iranian-backed forces and Hezbollah encroachment suggest that peace may be unlikely to hold.
Jordan has already sealed its border with Syria, but it is desperate to avoid further conflict on its doorstep. Jordan is straining to cope with the huge population of Syrian refugees living within its borders. There are currently 89 Syrians for every 1000 Jordanians, and this has hugely increased pressure on public services. Whilst the violence in the south of Syria is its greatest concern, it has a tremendous interested in restoring stability to Syria as far as possible.
Samuel Ramani added: “Jordan wanted Idlib to be an area of conflict de-escalation as well, while Russia has argued that the al-Nusra Front's presence in Idlib necessitates continued military action. Russian policymakers have argued that Moscow's support for the Syrian government's attack on Idlib does not violate the spirit of the de-escalation zone agreements, as the de-escalation process should only be complete once the borders of Syria are secured and stability is restored.”
The de-escalation zones have been criticized as nothing more than a strategy to let the Assad regime manage when it fights its battles. Certainly Russia’s willingness to join the fight, even within these zones, further sullies the strategy’s credibility.
Risks to Take
This is a thorn in Jordan’s side given the public support it has lent the de-escalation program, if only out of lack of other options for peace. Jordan’s trouble now is that it needs Russian cooperation to shore up its own vulnerabilities, even as Russia undermines its attempts to stabilize Syria.
Speaking to Al Bawaba, Mousa Qallab, a Researcher at the Orient Research Institute in Dubai and a former Brigadier General in the Jordanian Army outlined the key threats facing Jordan:
“Firstly, the King is not assured of U.S support, which Arab leaders also feel. President Trump’s policy is not steady towards his allies, so he might leave them alone in the battle for survival taking place in the region. Secondly, Iran and Hezbollah militias present a serious threat to Jordan at the tactical security level, which no power could minimize and neutralize other than Russia and President Putin. Finally, in terms of economic benefits, no one can guarantee Jordan a share in the transit trade of rebuilding Syria after war except Russia and Mr. Putin.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes King Abdullah II of Jordan (L) during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on October 2, 2014. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AFP photo)
Jordan has played its cards with the aim of creating stability in Syria. Its strategic vulnerability, and the domestic strains placed on it as a result of hosting the huge Syrian refugee population, mean that it cannot afford to take risks and lose the support of key players in the region. This is particularly so for Russia, which is right now the dominant power in shaping the Syrian conflict.
Jordan’s strength is its tactical maintenance of working diplomatic relations with players across the board. However, that strength is also a weakness, since any stronger gestures on Jordan’s part to establish a more definite long-term strategy risks alienating the help it needs. Up until now it has only been able to plan for the short-term. Whether the new talks in Moscow will change things is uncertain, but for now, Jordan will only be able to do so much to influence Russia’s plans.
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