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Jordan and Syria: Considerations of Strategic Interests and National Security

In the scientific seminar “The War in Syria: A Way Forward”, held jointly by the Politics and Society Institute (PSI) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) on 11th of October 2021, Jordanian and European experts virtually gathered to engage in a lively discussion on the future of strategic and security considerations to Syria and the region. Main topics included firstly, finding a political solution to the Syrian war and internal crisis, secondly, preventing Syria from becoming a regional center for illicit drug trade, extremism, and terrorism and thirdly, approaching and tackling the persistent issue of Syrian refugees.

The participants reaffirmed their approval of, and support to, a step-by-step policy approach in the context of Syria. This would entail progress in increments of concrete and verifiable measures of action, in an effort to foster the progression of a political solution in Syria and approach potential ‘normalization’ of relations with the Syrian regime.    

The participants discussed the Jordanian and international approach to the situation in Syria as a “step-by-step policy”, where progress towards the so-called “normalization” of relations with the Syrian regime is linked to the extent to which the Syrian regime has advanced steps towards a political solution and adaptation to the international and regional agenda.

In this fourth session of the project ‘Turning Point: How Jordan and its Partners can Successfully Navigate through Uncertainty’, the experts particularly criticized international passivity towards the Syrian situation. Especially in the volatile periods after the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has become evident that Syria is no longer a priority to the international community, a development that can be observed on approaches of both political and humanitarian nature.

  1. The strategic shifts regarding Syria

Speakers pointed out that the Syrian situation has moved from the dynamics of the ‘conflict in Syria’ to the ‘conflict over Syria’. The issue of ending the conflict, and thereby halting the continuous deterioration within Syria, is no longer linked to the decision of the internal parties and the conflicting forces, whether that be the Syrian regime or the political opposition. It is now much rather in the stage of internationalization, external conflict, and regional understandings, including discussions on Western agendas or the Astana path linked to Russian, Iranian and Turkish approaches.

While the Syrian regime has succeeded in regaining control of a large area of the country, most of the experts involved questioned the possibility of returning to the pre-2011 status quo. Speakers emphasized that the situation in northern Syria remains unstable, and voiced doubts on the earnest commitment of the Syrian regime to reaching a solution based on the integration of the majority of Syrians, the return of refugees, and the end of the Syrian crisis.

       As for southern Syria, which represents points of direct contact with Jordan’s national security conditions and strategic requirements, it is clear that the Russian-Ukrainian war has greatly affected this region. Russian forces, formerly stationed in that area, have withdrawn, somewhat mirroring the American approach of reducing military presence to the greatest extent possible (in the Kurdish areas and the al-Tanf military base in the southeast of Syria).

      Based on these transformations, it is noticeable that the Iranian presence has strengthened and taken root in this region in recent times. This is particularly detrimental to Jordan, with regard to an expanding illicit drug economy. Moving beyond individual-level endeavors, vast networks of illegal drug trade have established themselves, intertwined with the Syrian political economy, providing a source of income for armed militias, and offering profit to some Syrian military leaders.

    The issue of dealing with Jordanian-border drug trafficking is no longer linked to the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Agency but has become a national military issue due to the advancement of smuggling techniques. The use of drones and armed engagement changed the equation, which reflected on the Jordanian military strategy in dealing with the northern border and led to a “change in the rules of engagement” in that area. While the threat of ISIS has declined significantly at the Northern border of Jordan, this new, equally serious threat has taken its place. The great danger lies in its effects on Jordanian societal and moral security, as well as local groups and mafias benefiting from trade and smuggling operations that go towards Jordan, other countries in the region, and especially the Persian Gulf.

  2. The Jordanian Strategic Approach: Step by Step

With regard to the Jordanian approach to the situation in Syrian, participants pointed out that it is in line with the international agenda, especially the American and European, and is based on what has been called  the policy of step by step, where Jordan and the international community link any progress towards the Syrian regime and normalization of relations with it with the policies of the Syrian regime itself, and the extent of its commitment to the political solution and convergence with the interests of the international system.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime’s behavior remains discouraging other actors from going too far with this approach. Today, the Syrian regime believes that it has already emerged victorious after years of war and international pressure. As a result of sanctions, the regime is no longer economically bound to actors other than its main allies. This implies that, both politically and economically, there is a perception of having nothing to lose. Correspondingly, the Syrian regime only shows itself cooperative in steps of normalization when its own interests are met. Potential change, in this regard, may be catalyzed as a consequence of the international isolation to which Russia has been subjected.

Jordanian Syrian relations have recently witnessed remarkable developments, as represented by a telephone conversation between King Abdullah and the Syrian president, mutual visits by officials and ministers, and a visit by a Jordanian private sector delegation to Syria. Nevertheless, mutual political interests are still stuck with a lack of clarity on the situation in Syria, and with regard to economic interests. Hence, most of the files are still pending and no clear steps forward have passed.

Some participants summarized the most important economic developments between the Jordan and Syria as follows:

  • Syria banned the import of Jordanian products, which was reciprocated by Jordan by stopping imports of Syrian products and creating a tense relationship.
  • Syria also has liquidity and currency problems, so it is not easy to deal with product exchanges, at least in the short term.
  • There are common business interests in the medium and long term (e.g., Jordan used to buy a lot of raw materials from Syria, and then started buying from foreign markets at a higher price).
  • More importantly, in terms of transportation, Jordan used to transport through Syria and Turkey to the EU, but now it must move by sea with a significant increase in shipping rates.
  • Perhaps the most important aspect is water:  a legally binding deal with Syria on water has not been adhered to for a while and has not succeeded in breaking this file for a while.
  • The electricity that passes through Syria and Lebanon is another issue of concern and could be a partial solution to reach the energy problem in both countries and a way to invest in the energy excess that Jordan has.
  • From the agricultural side, both Jordan and Syria protect their products and their ability to produce vital products has changed. Syria used to produce huge quantities of wheat but today the land that produces wheat is not under safe control.
  • Jordan has long looked at common interests and synergies, and it will take some time to return to such a normal situation.

3. Conclusions

  1. Today, the step-by-step approach has become the most commonly adopted approach by the international community and Jordanian foreign policy. Despite being a concession to the demands of a political transition, it represents a realistic option commensurate with the interest of the Syrian people and a path forward in reaching a solution for the Syrian nation and the resulting security and refugee crises.
  2. The Syrian regime’s behavior today is the main obstacle to the success of this approach and in finding definitive and lasting solutions to the crisis. Main issues are the regime’s lack of response in taking security steps – on Jordan’s northern border, for example – diplomacy in this direction, as well as its failure to react positively to the return of refugees.
  3. The Russian invasion of Ukraine today negatively affects the paths of resolving the Syrian crisis as a result of several factors, the most important of which are the absence of the guarantor role played by Russia before the war, the preoccupation of European actors with their own crises, and their warning against normalization with one of Russia’s most important international allies.
  4. Today, the water and energy issues, as well as the resumption of trade exchange, are pivotal to the economy despite the challenges they face related to the response of the Syrian side and the problems of liquidity and currency in Syria.
  5.  Many of the security, economic and refugee issues remain stuck until a final agreement is reached regarding the resolution of the Syrian crisis.
Politics and Society Institute

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