The im­pact of the Syr­ian civil war on Syr­ian-Jor­da­nian re­la­tions, By Ja­cob Abadi

Turkish Review - - CONTENTS - PROF. JA­COB ABADI

The civil war in Syria has be­come a ma­jor con­cern for the Hashemite monar­chy in Jordan. The Syr­ian threat and the in­flux of refugees into Jordan con­sti­tute a dan­ger to the sta­bil­ity of the regime and jeop­ar­dize the del­i­cate bal­ance that has ex­isted since the coun­try’s es­tab­lish­ment in the af­ter­math of World War I. This es­say pro­vides an anal­y­sis of the re­la­tions be­tween Jordan and Syria, and the im­pact of the Syr­ian civil war on the sta­bil­ity of the Hashemite regime Since its cre­ation by Bri­tain in the af­ter­math of World War I, the sta­bil­ity of the Jor­da­nian regime has been a ma­jor con­cern for not only the Hashemite fam­ily that rules the coun­try but also Jordan’s neigh­bors. Soon af­ter the coun­try’s es­tab­lish­ment, its ruler Emir Ab­dul­lah as­pired to be king of both Jordan and Syria -- a plan he never of­fi­cially aban­doned. His vi­sion of “Greater Syria” in­cluded Lebanon and Pales­tine, as well as Tran­sjor­dan. 1 The repub­li­can regime in­stalled in Syria fol­low­ing French with­drawal in 1946 re­garded King Ab­dul­lah’s am­bi­tious plan as an encroachment on its sovereignty and an in­ter­fer­ence in its do­mes­tic af­fairs. The ten­sion be­tween the two coun­tries mounted to such an ex­tent that Syria brought the is­sue to de­bate at the Arab League on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. De­spite stren­u­ous at­tempts at me­di­a­tion by neigh­bor­ing Arab states, ten­sion along the bor­der be­tween the two coun­tries per­sisted, and of­fi­cial state­ments of good will made by both sides did lit­tle to al­lay the mu­tual sus­pi­cions that have fre­quently char­ac­ter­ized the two coun­tries’ re­la­tions ever since.


In ad­di­tion to Syr­ian ten­sions, Jordan is plagued by do­mes­tic prob­lems that also threaten the sta­bil­ity of its regime. The coun­try’s weak­ness is largely a byprod­uct of its het­ero­ge­neous char­ac­ter. 2 Prior to its es­tab­lish­ment as an in­de­pen­dent emi­rate, the area that be­came Tran­sjor­dan was in­hab­ited by tra­di­tional tribes who man­aged to re­tain con­sid­er­able power and played an im­por­tant role in the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic life of the coun­try. These tribes, how­ever, were grad­u­ally, and without ma­jor con­flicts, in­cor­po­rated in the govern­ment and state bu­reau­cracy. Jordan also has a large pop­u­la­tion of Pales­tini­ans, some of whom were refugees who fled to the coun­try in the af­ter­math of the Pales­tine War of 1948 and be­came Jor­da­nian cit­i­zens, while oth­ers, com­ing af­ter the Six Day War of 1967, re­mained refugees. The pres­ence of Pales­tinian armed groups such as Black Septem­ber, which was ac­tive in the early 1970s, con­sti­tuted a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to the Hashemite regime.

In ad­di­tion to these po­lit­i­cal cleav­ages, the frag­ile state of the Jor­da­nian econ­omy led to de­pen­dence on neigh­bor­ing coun­tries such as Syria, which is an im­por­tant mar­ket for its agri­cul­tural

prod­ucts; Is­rael, which sup­plies it with wa­ter; and the Gulf states, which pro­vide its oil. Jordan’s wa­ter re­sources are scarce and no more than 10 per­cent of its land is arable. Apart from for­eign aid, Jordan’s sources of rev­enue are limited. They come mainly from phos­phates, po­tash and other fer­til­iz­ers, and tourism. Jordan’s main ex­port goods are phos­phates, po­tash, other fer­til­iz­ers, cloth­ing, pharmaceuticals and veg­eta­bles. The mod­er­ate in­come from these ex­ports does not meet the coun­try’s needs.


The mea­ger re­sources and the frag­ile state of the econ­omy have turned Jordan into easy prey to for­eign am­bi­tions, and the Syr­ian threat man­i­fested it­self on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. The most ob­vi­ous case fol­lowed King Hus­sein’s crack­down on the Pales­tini­ans in 1970, when Syria tried to ex­ploit the op­por­tu­nity to in­vade the coun­try and in­crease its in­flu­ence there. In July 1971, Syria sev­ered diplo­matic re­la­tions with Jordan, and the ten­sion be­tween the two coun­tries in­creased. The Jor­da­nian regime man­aged to sur­vive the stormy events that fol­lowed. King Hus­sein’s de­ci­sion to re­frain from tak­ing part in the Yom Kip­pur War of Oc­to­ber 1973, mean­while, when Egypt and Syria in­vaded the Oc­cu­pied Ter­ri­to­ries, saved the Hashemite regime the em­bar­rass­ment of an­other de­feat and paved the road to rap­proche­ment with Syria. By the mid-1970s, re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries had warmed to such an ex­tent that in 1976 Jordan was the only coun­try to sup­port the pres­ence of Syr­ian forces in Lebanon af­ter they over­stayed their wel­come. This “hon­ey­moon,” how­ever, was short-lived. The Egyp­tian peace ini­tia­tive, which be­gan in 1977 and cul­mi­nated in a sep­a­rate Egyp­tian-Is­raeli treaty, signed at Camp David on Sept. 17, 1978, caused ten­sion in re­la­tions be­tween Jordan and Syria, whose then-Pres­i­dent Hafez al-As­sad ex­pected King Hus­sein to de­nounce the peace treaty. King Hus­sein’s mild re­ac­tion to the Camp David Ac­cords was not well re­ceived in Da­m­as­cus. He was ac­cused of be­ing sym­pa­thetic to the peace treaty and of pro­vid­ing refuge to mil­i­tants of the Syr­ian Mus­lim Brother­hood. The ten­sion in­creased fur­ther by the end of 1980, when both sides de­ployed forces along the bor­der.

While Jordan’s re­la­tions with Syria con­tin­ued to

be marred by these ac­cu­sa­tions, the king’s con­cern for his coun­try’s se­cu­rity led him to im­prove his re­la­tions with Iraq, whose rul­ing Ba’ath regime was not on good terms with that of Syria. The im­pact of this rap­proche­ment on Jordan’s re­la­tions with Syria was more dev­as­tat­ing than the king imag­ined, both po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. Pres­i­dent As­sad ac­cused Jordan of mis­treat­ing Syr­ian cit­i­zens who came to Jordan. Once again, he said that Jordan pro­vided shel­ter to Mus­lim Brother­hood mem­bers who were plot­ting against Syria. The Iraqi regime’s role in sup­ply­ing Jordan with arms ag­gra­vated the ten­sion, and led to an­other cri­sis in re­la­tions be­tween Amman and Da­m­as­cus. Ten­sion along the bor­der in­creased when Syr­ian agents in­fil­trated Jordan. Af­ter its mil­i­tary at­taché in Lebanon was kid­napped in 1981, Jordan im­me­di­ately ac­cused Syria. The ten­sion be­tween the two coun­tries reached a new height later that year, when Jordan ac­cused As­sad’s brother Ri­faat of an at­tempt to as­sas­si­nate Jordan’s prime min­is­ter.

By the mid-1980s, re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries be­gan once more to im­prove, but Jordan be­came en­tan­gled in do­mes­tic prob­lems, the most press­ing of which was the de­cline of agri­cul­ture caused by the mi­gra­tion of la­bor to Is­rael, and by Jor­da­ni­ans who aban­doned their farms for more lu­cra­tive jobs. Faced with a dan­ger from rest­less Pales­tinian res­i­dents in the West Bank who con­tin­ued to fight Is­rael from their bases in Jordan and thereby ex­pose his coun­try to re­tal­i­a­tion, King Hus­sein -- con­cerned about his coun­try’s se­cu­rity and unique iden­tity -- de­cided to re­nounce all claims to the West Bank in 1988. This step helped his coun­try dis­so­ci­ate it­self from the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict, and re­duced the dan­ger of his regime be­ing over­thrown by the Pales­tini­ans.

Jordan’s re­la­tions with Syria im­proved in the wake of the Gulf War of Jan­uary 1991, in which the US and its al­lies lib­er­ated Kuwait, af­ter its oc­cu­pa­tion by Iraq. How­ever, King Hus­sein’s de­ci­sion to sign a peace treaty with Is­rael on Oct. 29, 1994, caused ten­sion be­tween Amman and Da­m­as­cus. De­spite the Oslo Ac­cord and the es­tab­lish­ment of the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity (PA), Jordan re­mained vul­ner­a­ble be­cause the mil­i­tants among the Pales­tini­ans re­fused to come to terms with Is­rael -- and some of their lead­ers found refuge in Jordan. One of the cases in which the Is­raelis pur­sued these lead­ers in Jordan oc­curred in 1997, when Mos­sad agents tried to as­sas­si­nate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Amman.


Even though Jordan en­joyed greater sta­bil­ity than the other regimes in the Mid­dle East, there were se­ri­ous chal­lenges that caused con­cern. Trou­bled by do­mes­tic is­sues, the Hashemite regime con­tin­ued to search for greater sta­bil­ity, a quest that be­came harder to achieve fol­low­ing the out­break of the stormy events and the up­heavals in Tu­nisia and Egypt in 2011. The Hashemite regime’s at­tempts to pre­vent these events, which be­came known col­lec­tively as the “Arab Spring,” from un­der­min­ing the sta­bil­ity of his regime were largely suc­cess­ful. Hop­ing to min­i­mize the dam­age to his regime, King Ab­dul­lah II in­tro­duced re­forms and agreed to hold par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in Jan­uary 2013, but many Jor­da­ni­ans re­garded his re­forms as in­ad­e­quate. Em­bold­ened by Is­lamists in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, the Mus­lim Brother­hood has be­come more de­mand­ing and more vo­cal, and King Ab­dul­lah’s fear that the brother­hood’s con­nec­tion with Syr­ian Is­lamists would un­der­mine his regime in­ten­si­fied. The ten­sion be­tween the two coun­tries per­sisted and the regime of Bashar al-As­sad was ac­cused of in­ter­fer­ing in Jor­da­nian af­fairs by spy­ing and in­fil­trat­ing the bor­der. There were even re­ports that Da­m­as­cus ig­nored or even en­cour­aged the in­fil­tra­tion of al-Qaeda el­e­ments into Jordan. What pre­vented a se­ri­ous rup­ture in the re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­ties was the ex­is­tence of a ro­bust trade that nei­ther side wished to dis­rupt.

The un­rest, which be­gan in Syria in March 2011, and cul­mi­nated in the on­go­ing civil war, put re­la­tions to a se­vere test. For King Ab­dul­lah II it was a choice be­tween sup­port­ing a ri­val ag­gres­sive regime whose ac­tions of­ten com­pro­mised Jordan’s na­tional se­cu­rity, or back­ing the rebels, whose prospects of over­throw­ing the Syr­ian regime did not seem very promis­ing. In the face of the un­known,


the king chose to avoid en­tan­gle­ments and main­tain the role of “hon­est bro­ker” in the con­flict.

The in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of the Syr­ian civil war, how­ever, did not al­low the king to main­tain a neu­tral role in the con­flict. Wit­ness­ing the re­pres­sive means by which the Syr­ian regime dealt with the rebels, the king be­came more crit­i­cal of the regime and more sym­pa­thetic to the rebels. He went to the ex­tent of say­ing that Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad ought to re­sign. In an in­ter­view to the BBC on Nov. 14, 2011, the king said: “If I were in his [Bashar As­sad] shoes […] I would step down and make sure who­ever comes be­hind me has the abil­ity to change the sta­tus quo […] if Bashar has the in­ter­ests of his coun­try, he would step down […] and start a new phase of Syr­ian po­lit­i­cal life.” But the king had to ex­am­ine his op­tions care­fully. The col­lapse of the regime in Syria could lead to the down­fall of his erst­while ri­val, but it could also leave a power vac­uum that the Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ists would rush to fill, and these could un­der­mine the sta­bil­ity of Hashemite regime.

The refugee cri­sis caused by the Syr­ian civil war also con­sti­tutes a heavy bur­den on the Jor­da­nian econ­omy and a threat to its rul­ing regime. The ar­rival of refugees has in­creased the ten­sion in the coun­try, and many Jor­da­ni­ans -- par­tic­u­larly those re­sid­ing along the bor­der -- re­sent the new­com­ers. In ad­di­tion to the eco­nomic hard­ship that the in­flux of these refugees causes, they con­sti­tute an ad­di­tional so­cial con­straint for the regime to grap­ple with. Al­though most Jor­da­ni­ans wel­come the refugees, there are many who ques­tion their right to refuge in Jordan. At the same time, the fear that the Mus­lim Brother­hood will ex­ploit this op­por­tu­nity to gain power has in­creased con­sid­er­ably.

Jor­da­ni­ans who wit­nessed the events in Tu­nisia, Egypt and other coun­tries where the Mus­lim Brother­hood was in­volved in the at­tempt to over­throw the regime be­came dis­il­lu­sioned by the group’s con­duct and fear­ful of its in­tent. The civil war in Syria con­tin­ues to di­vide the Jor­da­nian pub­lic. While many sym­pa­thize with the rebels, oth­ers -- par­tic­u­larly the na­tion­al­ist left­ist elite -- sup­port the As­sad regime. So far, the king has proven him­self a master of the tightrope: Al­though his rhetoric changed and his tone be­came more ag­gres­sive to­ward As­sad, he did not go to the

ex­tent of sev­er­ing his diplo­matic re­la­tions with Syria. At the same time, he en­deav­ored to main­tain con­tacts with mod­er­ate el­e­ments among the rebels. This ex­plains the rea­son for his de­ci­sion to pro­mote for­mer mod­er­ate Syr­ian Prime Min­is­ter Riyad Hi­jab as the can­di­date in charge of a the­o­ret­i­cal tran­si­tion pe­riod that would fol­low As­sad’s res­ig­na­tion.

Jordan’s re­la­tions with Syria de­te­ri­o­rated se­ri­ously by late 2012, when Jordan be­gan to al­low the trans­fer of Saudi arms and troops to the Syr­ian rebels. Jordan be­came in­creas­ingly ac­tive in help­ing the resistance move­ment, fa­cil­i­tat­ing the trans­fer of weapons from other coun­tries such as Croa­tia, and al­lowed the US to open train­ing camps on its ter­ri­tory. Hav­ing to choose his en­e­mies and al­lies care­fully, the king pre­ferred to adopt the mod­er­ate ap­proach taken by the US and Saudi Ara­bia, while re­ject­ing the more mil­i­tant ap­proach of coun­tries


such as Qatar and Turkey, who fa­vored faster and more rad­i­cal tran­si­tion in Syria. Un­for­tu­nately, his ef­forts to ap­pear mod­er­ate and neu­tral in the con­flict did not earn him div­i­dends in Da­m­as­cus. As­sad re­mained as re­cal­ci­trant and un­com­pro­mis­ing as he had been all along. In an in­ter­view to the tele­vi­sion sta­tion Ikhbariya on April 17, 2013, he ac­cused Jordan of al­low­ing “thou­sands” of rebels “with their ar­ma­ments and equip­ment” to cross its ter­ri­tory on the way to Syria, and warned, “Jordan is as sus­cep­ti­ble to these events as Syria.”

The Syr­ian civil war is one among nu­mer­ous fac­tors threat­en­ing to un­der­mine sta­bil­ity in Jordan. Though sig­nif­i­cantly smaller than that of Lebanon, the in­flux of Syr­ian refugees to Jordan, which in­creased to 550,000 in Novem­ber of 2013, con­sti­tutes a se­ri­ous chal­lenge for the al­ready over­bur­dened coun­try. Yet there is a bless­ing in that curse; Jordan has gained in­creas­ing sym­pa­thy through­out the world and in the US in par­tic­u­lar. At the time of this writ­ing, more than one fifth of the $800 mil­lion the US ap­pro­pri­ated for Syr­ian refugees had gone to Jordan. US aid also comes in other forms: In ad­di­tion to train­ing per­son­nel Wash­ing­ton agreed to pro­vide Jordan with Pa­triot mis­siles and a small num­ber of troops.

Mean­while, the in­flux of refugee is well over half a mil­lion, many of whom re­side in the Zaatari refugee camp, and many Jor­da­nian ji­hadists have crossed the bor­der to join the resistance move­ment. The king’s fear that these highly trained ex­trem­ists would re­turn home to chal­lenge his rule has in­creased. Al­though pub­lic opin­ion in most coun­tries iden­ti­fied with the cause of the rebels, only a few coun­tries -- such as the US, Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey and Qatar -- are ac­tive in pro­vid­ing them with for­eign aid.

King Ab­dul­lah II con­tin­ues to main­tain a low pro­file. He hosts the refugees, and co­op­er­ates with the US and the Gulf coun­tries in arm­ing and train­ing the rebels, while seek­ing for­eign aid and greater US mil­i­tary pres­ence. The Syr­ian civil war con­sti­tutes a threat to Jordan’s se­cu­rity not only be­cause of the in­flux of refugees, but also due to Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ist in­flu­ence com­ing from Syria, re­in­forc­ing the Jor­da­nian Mus­lim Brother­hood and turn­ing it into a for­mi­da­ble op­po­si­tion force seek­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the govern­ment. The Mus­lim Brother­hood has be­come so bold and re­cal­ci­trant that in July 2012, its lead­ers an­nounced that they would boy­cott par­lia­men­tary elec­tions slated for Jan­uary 2013.

An­other fac­tor threat­en­ing the sta­bil­ity of the Jor­da­nian regime is the ex­is­tence of mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Jab­hat al-Nusra and the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which have a large num­ber of Jor­da­nian re­cruits and over which the govern­ment has lit­tle or no con­trol. The ex­is­tence of Syr­ian ur­ban cen­ters with large fun­da­men­tal­ist pop­u­la­tions, close to Zarqa and Ir­bid, is also a source of un­rest and of ma­jor con­cern to the govern­ment.

A fur­ther se­ri­ous im­pact of the Syr­ian civil war is the de­mo­graphic change it brought to Jordan. Fear­ing Syr­ian bom­bard­ment with chem­i­cal weapons, many Jor­da­ni­ans liv­ing close to the bor­der with Syria have moved to other lo­ca­tions, east or south of the coun­try. These de­vel­op­ments have forced the Jor­da­nian regime to be more ac­tive in the civil war than the king’s of­fi­cial state­ments sug­gest. He al­lowed the trans­fer of arms to the rebels through his ter­ri­tory. US forces whose pur­pose is to train the Syr­ian rebels are sta­tioned in

the coun­try and mil­i­tary con­voys funded by Saudi Ara­bia are cross­ing the Jor­da­nian bor­der on their way to Syria. Both the Saudi and the Jor­da­nian in­tel­li­gence were re­ported to have been in­volved in train­ing the rebel forces.


At the time of writ­ing the civil war con­tin­ues and there is no end in sight. The stakes re­main high for King Ab­dul­lah II. If As­sad’s regime man­ages to sup­press the op­po­si­tion, acts of “be­trayal” by Jordan are likely to have a neg­a­tive and long-last­ing im­pact on re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. On the other hand, a rebel vic­tory, which the king is hop­ing for, is likely to turn the Mus­lim Brother­hood into a pop­u­lar army of lib­er­a­tion, in­crease its pres­tige in the eyes of the Jor­da­nian pub­lic, and turn it to a se­ri­ous chal­lenger to the sta­bil­ity of his regime, even though cur­rently it is not the most im­por­tant ac­tor in the Syr­ian civil war.

The con­straints on the Jor­da­nian regime re­main pow­er­ful. They man­i­fest them­selves not only by the pres­sure ex­erted by the Mus­lim Brother­hood to have a mean­ing­ful par­tic­i­pa­tion in the for­ma­tion of the Jor­da­nian govern­ment, but also by the tribes who seek to main­tain their tra­di­tional priv­i­leges, and the Pales­tini­ans who seek bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion and a greater share in the coun­try’s wealth.

Pres­sured by the dire eco­nomic con­di­tions and the in­creas­ing num­ber of Syr­ian refugees King Ab­dul­lah II sought fi­nan­cial re­lief by ask­ing the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF) for a $2 bil­lion loan in late 2012. His re­quest was met with de­mands to im­pose strin­gent aus­ter­ity mea­sures and to re­duce sub­si­dies. This in turned, caused a sharp rise in prices, par­tic­u­larly that of fuel, which rose by 50 per­cent. These eco­nomic mea­sures led to un­rest, which posed a se­ri­ous threat to the sta­bil­ity of the Jor­da­nian monar­chy.

The fi­nan­cial aid King Ab­dul­lah II man­aged to ob­tain was in­suf­fi­cient to meet the chal­lenge posed by the in­flux of the Syr­ian refugees, and the fear that the sta­bil­ity of the regime might be com­pro­mised led him in 2013 to ask that the US leave be­hind its 700 troops that had been par­tic­i­pat­ing in a train­ing ex­er­cise in the coun­try. US Pres­i­dent Barak Obama agreed to leave the force in ad­di­tion to Pa­triot mis­sile sys­tems, F-16 fighter air­craft and other


sup­plies. The news that the Syr­ian govern­ment has used chem­i­cal weapons in the fight the in­sur­gents was in­flu­en­tial in US govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to honor the king’s re­quest. Though qui­etly help­ing the in­sur­gents, the king has in­sisted there will be no at­tack on Syria from Jor­da­nian ter­ri­tory.

The crit­ics are nu­mer­ous and those seek­ing to un­der­mine the regime’s ef­forts to main­tain sta­bil­ity are still ac­tive. The task of main­tain­ing sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity is par­tic­u­larly daunt­ing given the paucity of the coun­try’s eco­nomic re­sources. Thus the out­break of civil war in Syria has made mat­ters far worse for the Hashemite regime. King Ab­dul­lah II is highly aware of the dan­gers in­her­ent in tak­ing sides in a con­flict. The ar­rival of the refugees has cre­ated ma­jor se­cu­rity con­cerns for the Jor­da­nian regime. Refugees who cross the bor­der into Jordan are of­ten pur­sued by Syr­ian govern­ment forces, mak­ing it harder for Jor­da­nian forces to se­cure the bor­der. In ad­di­tion, refugees need eco­nomic re­sources, which Jordan is hardly in a po­si­tion to pro­vide. The im­pact of the war on Jordan’s econ­omy is sig­nif­i­cant; ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent es­ti­mates, Jordan’s trade with Syria has dropped by 50 per­cent.

Whether or not the As­sad regime sur­vives the Syr­ian civil war, Jordan will con­tinue to be its vic­tim, for all the at­tempts by King Ab­dul­lah II to ap­pear an hon­est bro­ker in the con­flict. As­sad has al­ready ex­pressed his dis­en­chant­ment with Jordan for what he re­garded as a breach of faith and a be­trayal of the Arab cause. He dis­missed Jordan’s claim that it can­not stop the pas­sage of armed rebels through its ter­ri­tory to Syria, while ar­rest­ing in­di­vid­u­als at­tempt­ing to cross its bor­der to fight for the Pales­tinian cause. Al­though the king’s rhetoric re­mained mod­er­ate, his ten­dency to sup­port the rebel caused has in­ten­si­fied. Whether or not the As­sad regime will sur­vive re­mains to be seen. It is clear, how­ever, the Syr­ian civil war has put the Hashemite regime of the horns of one the most se­ri­ous dilem­mas that the coun­try has ever ex­pe­ri­enced.


Jordan has been in­un­dated with refugees since the start of the con­flict in Syria.


Refugees ar­rive in Ruweishid, Jordan.


A Jor­da­nian soldier at the Jordan-Syria bor­der near Mafraq.

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