Jordan’s patience and silence on Syria has its limits

Raed Omari
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There is seemingly no sign of dramatic change in Jordan’s long-held neutral position towards the ongoing violence in Syria in the near future despite the increasing border security concerns and refugees burdens, yet there might be.

Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Jordan has been showing a neutral position marked primarily with a diplomatic caution towards the turmoil sweeping its northern neighbor, cunningly avoiding antagonizing the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Syrian dissidents as well, despite pressure from internal and external powers – mainly the Islamists, the U.S. and the Gulf states – to toughen its public posture towards Damascus.

Jordan, already anxious about security concerns, a Damascus retribution and, more importantly, the possibility of radical groups taking power in Syria, would probably not remain “silent”.

Raed Omari

It is certain that the official Jordanian rhetoric towards Syria, which has been so far advocating a political solution, will remain unchanged – at least for a while – but with a rising border escalation, excessively growing influx of refugees and, surprisingly, a pressing demand by deputies to turn decisive, this long-held position might change.
Over the last week and on, Syrian rebels have been reported to be engaging in fierce clashes with the government forces in the southern province of Daraa – the birthplace of Syria 2011 uprising – with the rebels reportedly capturing a strategic town near the Jordanian-Syrian border.

Jordan’s security officials and residents of the Jordanian city of Ramtha on the border with Daraa have been reporting heavy gunfire near the southern Syrian city of Nasib over the last week amidst reports of mortar shells falling on some Jordanian villages along the border.

Similar incidents of Syrian mortar fire falling across the 375-kilometre Jordanian-Syrian border have been reported over the past two years.

Moreover, a Free Syrian Army coordinator was quoted in a Jordanian news agency as saying that the clashes are part a wider offensive on regime positions along the border planned for this week. “Next week [this week] will be a true battle for southern Syria.”

Jordan, already anxious about security concerns, a Damascus retribution and, more importantly, the possibility of radical groups taking power in Syria, would not probably remain “silent” and tolerate seeing its borders with Syria turning into chaos and open for extremists who have “ambitious plans and postponed agenda.”

Rebel forces have reportedly controlled up to 80 percent of the Jordanian-Syrian border but have repeatedly failed to capture the strategic crossing points that refugees use to travel into Jordan.

Jordan is not expected to take any military action to secure its borders but would adopt more daring and strict procedures other than its benign “open-border” policy should violence escalates in Daraa or any security incident spirals out of control at the border.

What adds to Jordan’s burdens and consequently its security concerns is the increase in the number of Syrian refugees that amounted to unprecedented levels, reaching 10,000 last week, pushing the total number of refugees in the country to over 470,500 according to official figures.

Almost 300 Syrian refugees arrive in the kingdom each day, according to official estimates. If this influx continues at the current rate, Jordan, with very limited resources, may end up hosting over a million refugees by the end of 2013.
Should such an influx continue, Jordan, as its Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour recently said, may potentially enter a “catastrophic” situation.

Jordanian government and, remarkably MPs, have been complaining about the increasing number of Syrian refugees in their already-troubled country, with an emerging discourse advocating a closure of the northern border with Syria and urging for a “buffer zone” across the Syrian border to stop refugees flow.

The idea of “buffer zone” is a less probable procedure as Jordanian authorities still pledging to continue receiving Syrians fleeing the regime’s crackdown solely out of “humanitarian obligations” but with MPs pressing for addressing the refugee influx and with Assad forces expected to lose control of Draa, such a proposal might enter Jordan’s way of thinking.

Jordan’s lawmakers entered the scene

In a remarkable development to the kingdom’s reaction to the Syrian situation, Jordanian newly-elected deputies surprisingly raised new concerns and demands last week that were perceived as logical and needed by some and were rejected by others.

During a heated debate over the last week, several MPs called on the government to close the border in the face of the Syrian exodus and creating a buffer zone across the border with Syria.

Some other veteran deputies, mainly former Lower House speaker Abdul Karim al-Dughmi, a conservative politician and a champion of the Jordanian state, went further as criticizing the government’s “timid position” towards Syria and blaming some Arab states’ “conspiracy” for the unrest in Syria.

“Those countries whose plotting stands behind the deteriorating situation in Syria should receive the refugees … Let us send them 100,000 Syrians to see how they act” said in anger and sarcasm the outspoken Dughmi.

Concluding their two sessions wholly dedicated to the Syrian crisis, Jordan’s Lower House provided 50 recommendations to the government, including the issue of effecting a buffer zone, where Syrian refugees can be ensured a safe haven within the Syrian territories.
In response to deputies’ pressing demand of a buffer zone, Ensour said, “We can not gather all Syrians in one location within the Syrian territories, but in Jordan we can provide security and many other things to them.”

Reaffirming Jordan’s policy towards the Syrian crisis, Ensour reiterated that the kingdom will not be part of any regional war but it will maintain its humanitarian efforts helping those who have fled the violence in Syria.

But the “buffer zone” matter is expected to resurface during the Lower House’s deliberations over the policy statement of Ensour’s newly-formed government over which deputies, already unsatisfied with its make-up, will grant their vote of confidence.

Two ambassadors’ abrupt but timely visits

Right after deputies’ heated discussions of the Syrian situation, the Saudi and Iranian ambassadors paid unscheduled visits to Jordan’s Lower House which can be said to be not more than a reassurance of a historic alliance with Saudi Arabia for the former and a sign of Iran’s support to a Jordan’s new stance by the latter.

According to a well-informed source, it was the Lower House Speaker Saad Hayel Srour who invited the Saudi Ambassador to Jordan Fahed Al Zaid to a meeting in the chamber.

Though nothing exceptional was reported to be said during the meeting, Srour’s aim was certainly to reaffirm the Jordanian-Saudi unbreakable bonds and to stress that what has been said by some deputies did not represent Jordan’s official position towards Syria that is in line with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s.

The Saudi ambassador’s visit was then followed three days after by another “counter visit” by Iran’s Ambassador to Jordan Mostafa Mosleh-Zadeh who, without being invited, showed up to the Lower House and met with Srour.

Zadeh, having heard what some Jordanian MPs have said about the Syrian crisis, especially those new remarks on “conspiracy”, came to show the close Damascus ally Iran’s support to a new Jordan’s position.

Jordan, which has so far succeeded in reconciling its posture towards Damascus, the Syrian rebels, the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf states, is certainly unwilling and logically unable to sacrifice its strategic allies for the sake of a regime approaching its fall.

Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via [email protected], or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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