Jordan’s long-held “neutral” position towards the ongoing violence in Syria is seemingly changing now with emerging voices in the refugee-plagued kingdom urging for closing the northern borders and irreversibly enforcing a buffer zone in southern Syria.
Beset by deep concerns of retribution by Damascus and the possibility of radical groups’ dominance in post- Assad Syria, Jordan’s public line towards the civil war in its northern neighbor has been notably marked by neutralityRaed Omari
Beset by deep concerns of retribution by Damascus and the possibility of radical groups’ dominance in post- Assad Syria, Jordan’s public line towards the civil war in its northern neighbor has been notably marked by neutrality, detachment and diplomatic caution, cunningly succeeding in not siding explicitly with the pro- nor anti-Assad camps.
The limits of patience
But patience has limits. The Kingdom, heavily burdened with a protracted refugee situation – hosting around 500,000 Syrian refugees so far – coupled with the rise of long-awaited U.S decisiveness, has begun adopting a new discourse over the struggle in Syria that is remarkably alien to its long-held official rhetoric. No more neutrality when it comes to security – indeed, survival.
The resource-poor kingdom, that receives more than 2000 Syrian refugees daily, will no doubt continue promoting its advocacy of a political solution to the Syrian unrest similar to the Yemen-style transition of power and its rejection of external military action like the Libya-style intervention. However, with no foreseeable end to the influx of refugees, there needs to be immediate action on the ground – the least is the establishment of a buffer zone inside southern Syria.
Received with surprise and denouncement by the Syrian regime and its few allies,
there occurred a dramatic change to Jordan’s official position towards the Syrian crisis manifested, regardless of the leaks in Western media about joint training by the U.S. and Jordan of Syrian opposition forces, in expressions of distress and concern over the increasing number of Syrian refugees. There was also an explicit call for a buffer zone to stop the unbearable influx.
In recent remarks to the local press, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said the government will soon discuss the legal aspects of a plan to declare the northern parts of the kingdom as “catastrophe-stricken areas,” as a result of the repercussions associated with the large number of Syrian refugees residing in these regions.
Before that, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour put the number of registered Syrian refugees and non-refugees at more than one million, the majority of whom live in the northern region bordering Syria. He is expecting 500,000 more refugees to seek a safe-haven in the kingdom by the year’s end.
Jordan, which, according the U.S. former ambassador in Amman, Edward Gnehm, “has often found itself caught up in regional crises not of its own making but undermining its stability,” is growing more and more anxious and impatient regarding the security escalation at its northern border with Syria and the exodus of refugees and are thus eager for a buffer zone.
The buffer zone is seemingly now Jordan’s irreversible demand that, regardless of its military and political implications, is meant to set up a safe haven for refugees and make the kingdom proof of the Syrian influence through geographical distance.
The buffer zone - same means for different ends
While the planned buffer zone, or ‘the refugee safe zone’ as it is called by Jordanian officials, is explicitly a Jordanian bid to manage the exodus of Syrians and convert moderate rebel- controlled areas into permanent havens for displaced civilians and allow easy access of humanitarian aid under the supervision of the U.N., it is a U.S attempt to create safe rebel bases for military operations against Assad’s forces.
Jordan, which has so far succeeded politically in detaching itself from the Syrian unrest, not antagonizing Assad’s regime and the Syrian dissidents as well, is still keen on maintaining that position but it is a “geographical detachment” this time. Keeping the displaced Syrian civilians in ‘demilitarized areas’ is a guarantee for Jordan to remain detached and contain a spillover from its northern neighbour.
Rebel training angers Assad
The Washington Post and the Guardian published news reports over the last week about a U.S.-Jordan joint training of the Syrian moderate opposition forces that may be used to create a buffer zone along Syria’s southern border and control the regime’s chemical weapons –news which prompted Syria’s regime to warn neighboring Jordan of “playing with fire.”
Syria state television, radio and government daily al-Thawra have questioned Jordan’s “ambiguous” position towards Damascus, saying that news reports in the U.S. media show Jordan as having a “hand in training terrorists and then facilitating their entry to Syria.”
“Jordan’s ambiguous attempt to put out the flame from the leaked information will not help as it continues with its mysterious policy,” al-Thawra daily said.
No official statement was made by Jordan on the Syrian warnings except for Judeh’s press conference and some remarks by government officials quoted in western press as downplaying the warning, describing the accusations as “mere speculations by the Syrian media.”
Though no official statement was made by the Jordanian government either refuting the news reports or affirming them, it is certain that the kingdom, in full implementation of its sovereignty, has turned “decisive and daring,” taking precautionary measures to face Damascus retribution (publicly intended), handle a protracted refugee situation and avoid a possible Syria spillover.
Jordan is a strategic ally of the U.S - similar to the Syrian regime’s alliance with Russia. It is certain that the kingdom’s actions and tactics towards Syria are guided and okayed by the U.S. in the same way Moscow is militarily and politically helping Damascus survive the unrelenting uprising.
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