The impact of the Syrian civil war on Syrian-Jordanian relations, By 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.
SYRIA’S CIVIL WAR
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 INTENSIFICATION OF THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR DID NOT ALLOW KING ABDULLAH II TO MAINTAIN A NEUTRAL ROLE
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
THE ARRIVAL OF REFUGEES HAS INCREASED TENSIONS IN THE COUNTRY, AND MANY JORDANIANS RESENT THE NEWCOMERS
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.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
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
THE TASK OF MAINTAINING STABILITY IS PARTICULARLY DAUNTING GIVEN THE PAUCITY OF THE COUNTRY’S ECONOMIC RESOURCES
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.