US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria has surprised Jordan as this leaves the kingdom in a weak position — politically, economically and militarily.
Such a decision reveals the absence of a clear US strategy in Syria, with many US experts describing the move as a serious strategic miscalculation, which prompted Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign due to his disagreement with the policies of Trump in this regard.
A hasty move
The decision to withdraw has opened the door to much speculation and diverse analyses. This pull-out will have several adverse consequences for many countries in the Middle East, mainly Jordan. Once the US troops pull out of Syria without fully ending the presence of ISIS and other terrorist groups in the war-ravaged country, it would keep the door open for them to regroup and revive their former strength.
The spill-over this time will be on Jordan, which has been the military base for most of the aerial operations against terrorism in Iraq and Syria. In other words, these terrorist groups will mobilize their forces and restart operations across borders with a vengeance.
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Trump linked his decision to pull out of Syria with the fulfilment of American mission to fight ISIS. Although he claims that ISIS has been defeated, many politicians, lawmakers, experts and officials in the US and in the Middle East remain unconvinced. The British, Germans, French and even Jordanians do not believe it is the right decision at this time, as ISIS and other affiliate groups have not been eliminated in Syria and Iraq.
This means that the American mission has not been completed. Such a decision could help revive terrorist organizations and the will be more effective and influential than before as they now have gained more experience on how to fight, produce arms and carry out suicide attacks.
Many US experts describe Trump’s move to withdraw from Syria a serious strategic miscalculationShehab Al-Makahleh
For many countries, including Jordan, this decision, will help ISIS organise its ranks to start new operations in southern areas of Syria against Jordan. What has caused the uproar is that when Trump justifies the pull-out, saying that he does not want Washington to play the role of a policeman in the Middle East for free, without giving due importance to strategic interests for his country, he diminishes gains for his country in dealing with other international powers for global leadership.
Trump's comments place Jordan in a difficult situation as the country has 375km-long border with Syria, and has managed to keep them away from bloodshed in the aftermath of war in Jordan’s northern neighborhood.
Yet, Amman is concerned about the creation of a vacuum in southern regions of Syria, extending from south-east Badia region of the Syrian desert to south-west including Quneitra, Suwaida and Dera’a (or the so-called de-escalation zones in South Syria).
The residents of these areas who are Syrians have armed factions, which are trained and supported by American intelligence. Amongst them is a group called Jaysh Ahrar Al Asha’er (Army of Free Tribes). Such groups were raised on a Jordanian proposal to protect its borders from ISIS and other terrorist factions.
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The collapse of the Army of Free Tribes in the Syrian Badia, in the event of American withdrawal from Al-Tanf Base, which is close to the border triangle between Jordan, Syria and Iraq, would lead to a tide of extremist militant fighters, both Sunni or Shi’ite, entering the country from across the borders with Jordan in addition to the influx of thousands of refugees to the Jordanian border through Al Rukhban Camp.
The situation will not be better in Dera’a province, which could mean the incursion of sectarian militias into de-escalation zones which have been negatively affected by this decision. On the other hand, Jordan has repeatedly warned against being in a position where it would be left alone facing dangers, mainly with sectarian flags near its northern borders.
Despite the defeat of ISIS in many strongholds in Syria, one enclave is still under its control in the Yarmouk basin in rural areas of Dera’a, represented by Khalid Bin Al Waleed Army, a few kilometers from Jordanian borders. Amman fears that if the US pulls out, Khalid bin Walid Army would be active again in order to fill in the void.
Reaching out to Syria
Jordanian foreign policy is keeping the door open to enhance cooperation with Damascus politically, economically and militarily. Moreover, Jordanian-Syrian relations, especially in the field of military-intelligence, have become an example for others to follow. However, If Syrian armed forces along with Iranian troops decide to open the battle of Dera’a, West Dera’a and other provinces in southern Syria, Jordan has to take precautionary measures.
In the past, the US was providing financial, economic, and military assistance to Jordan in its war against terror in Syria and Iraq. However, the proposed US withdrawal would bring about grave consequences to Jordan militarily as the country opened its borders with Syria last October for trade activities.
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This pull-out would mean leaving a vacuum similar to that when the US troops withdrew from Iraq, creating the best ever environment for terrorist groups to thrive and flourish. This tacitly means higher costs on Jordan militarily to secure its borders with both Syria and Iraq, adding gigantic financial burdens on the country which already suffers from huge debts and other financial burdens.
The second concern for Jordan is the economic factor. The US has delivered Jordan another jolt with this decision as for the last eight years Jordan was benefitting from being a transit country for the international coalition operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. This provided the Jordanian economy some funds as a result. The pull-out would lead to depriving the kingdom of this source of revenue.
Military intelligence observations indicate that ISIS is getting a new lease of life and that its role is not yet over. Though Jordanian officials decline to comment on the US decision, they have justifiable concerns as this would expose Jordan to fight terrorism without the assistance of any country, which poses huge burdens on the Jordanian economy. Amman has to address these problems before it is too late.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.