On Russia’s role in south Syria and the end of Amman-Damascus détente

Osama al sharif
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (File photo: Jordan News)
For Jordan, a country that has emerged relatively unscathed from the ashes of the Arab Spring, the raging civil war in neighboring Syria has been a source of anxiety and a key security concern. For decades, relations between the two countries were marked by mutual suspicions, ideological differences, and opposite regional and global alliances and agendas. اضافة اعلان

President Bashar Al-Assad’s early attempt to liberalize his country and depart from the authoritarian legacy of his father was short lived. His Majesty King Abdullah and Assad made some headway in trying to build a personal rapport, but that too was derailed by domestic and regional events.

The eruption of the Syrian uprising in 2011, that was followed by civil war, put ties between the two countries on hold. Jordan’s position fluctuated on the Syrian crisis, with King Abdullah at one stage calling on Assad to step down. The Syrians accused Jordan of backing, training, and arming rebel groups.

But as more foreign countries and non-state actors stepped in to take sides in the brutal civil war, Jordan re-evaluated its position. As Daesh emerged in Syria and Iraq, threatening to destabilize the entire region, and as Iran and its proxies dug deep in Syria to defend the regime, while Turkish troops created enclaves inside Syrian territory, King Abdullah’s approach to the crisis shifted.

Embroiled in the war against Daesh, a war that was coming close to home, the King was the first leader to welcome Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 to rescue the besieged Assad regime.

With Russian forces firmly entrenched in most parts of Syria, King Abdullah and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an understanding whereby the Kremlin would keep pro-Iran militias, including Hezbollah and other extremists as far away as possible from Jordan’s borders with Syria. With US troops now in Al-Tanf base and in eastern Syria, the King had to navigate through tough geopolitical hurdles to maintain his understanding with Putin while making sure that his American allies appreciated the delicacy of Jordan’s position.

Jordan embraced Putin’s attempt to find a political common ground for the regime and the Syrian opposition through the Astana and Sochi processes, while backing the UN-sponsored Geneva talks.

Even after Syrian government troops finally succeeded in retaking Daraa and control most of the 360-kilometer border with Jordan, Amman hoped that Damascus would honor its understandings with Moscow. That arrangement had worked for some time.

More than 11 years after the eruption of the Syrian crisis, when he travelled to Washington, in July 2021, the King carried with him a road map for a resolution to the crisis that centered on rehabilitating the regime rather than replacing it. To prove his point, the King gave the go-ahead to a gradual process of normalization between Amman and Damascus last year.

That process saw the reopening of borders, the exchange of official visits and the resumption of joint ministerial meetings, and culminated, with King Abdullah receiving a call from Assad last October for the first time since 2011. Jordan and Egypt got the green light from the US to supply energy-starved Lebanon with gas and electricity through Syrian territory.

But the Amman-Damascus spring was cut short. Assad was reluctant or unable to meet King Abdullah half way. The Syrian president had to coordinate his moves with Tehran and Moscow first. The effort to rehabilitate the regime was also interrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February.

Meanwhile, to Jordan’s frustration, Syrian smugglers ratcheted up their activities across the Jordanian border, with a marked increase in attempts late last year. In January, the Jordanian Army intercepted and repulsed a huge operation that resulted in the killing of 27 smugglers and the confiscation of a huge cache of hashish and Captagon pills. In one of the operations, a Jordanian officer was killed and three border guards were wounded.

The complicity of Syrian army elements in facilitating what Jordan described as an organized operation was clear, and Amman did not hesitate to blame the regime and pro-Iran militias. These operations are believed to have become a source of much-needed cash by the regime.

While Jordan remains a transit country for these drugs, the destination being Gulf markets, there are disturbing signs that more drugs are now finding their way on Jordanian streets. The situation had become so dire that the army ordered a change in the rules of engagement in February, giving officers a free hand in dealing with infiltrators.

This is why King Abdullah warned last week, in an interview with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, that while the presence of Russia in southern Syria was a source of calm, any “vacuum will be filled by the Iranians and their proxies” and that “unfortunately, we are looking at maybe an escalation of problems on our borders”.

Much more than a warning about a vacuum if Russia leaves Syria, a move that may be elicited by the redeployment of troops to the Ukraine fronts and would almost certainly enable Iran and its proxies to fill it, the message is also for Assad who has become hostage to his Iranian benefactors and is unable to stop what Amman now sees as blatant aggression along its borders. Assad’s poor choice puts the normalization effort – an effort that would have benefitted Damascus the most – in jeopardy. 

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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