Why Jordan is pushing to normalise ties with the Syrian regime
Jordan is pushing to normalise economic ties with Syria as a prelude to re-engaging politically with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, following controversial statements by King Abdullah II in a CNN interview in which he declared that the Syrian regime is “there to stay”.
During his visit to Washington DC last week, the king declared that the US and Europe should establish a new narrative that replaces regime change with “behavioural change”.
“[Syrian] refugees are not going to go back any time soon… and that takes us to the challenge in our discussions with the United States and the Europeans,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an interview aired on 25 July.
"King Abdullah is pushing Washington and the EU to form a task force on Syria"
“Bashar has longevity... the regime is there and so we have to be mature in our thinking…is it regime change or behavioural change, and if it’s behavioural change then what do we do to come together to talk with the regime, because everyone else is doing it but there is no plan at the moment”.
He said that the West should talk to the Russians, who play a “vital role”, adding that the current status quo, where there is continued violence and the Syrian people pay the price, cannot continue.
“So we have to admit there is no perfect answer but moving the dialogue forward in a coordinated way is better than leaving it as it is,” the king said.
He also warned that it is not only the Russians and Iranian proxies who are in Syria but also the Islamic State (IS), who were defeated but not destroyed, adding that the reconstruction, linked to political reforms, of schools and hospitals could encourage refugees to return.
King Abdullah added that what happens in Syria is also linked to the “tragedy” that is happening in Lebanon, warning that Jordan could witness another wave of refugees.
Interestingly enough, this segment of the interview was not posted on the official site of the Royal Hashemite Court, nor did it appear in the Arabic and English texts of the interview.
And while the reaction to the king’s statements on Syria was muted in the kingdom, Russian media highlighted his comments and talked about how important Syria is for the Jordanian economy and the king’s efforts to bring Syria back to the Arab fold.
The war has left around 500,000 dead, mostly from regime attacks, with more than five million Syrians forced to flee to neighbouring countries and an additional six million Syrian civilians internally displaced.
Jordan's beleaguered economy
On 27 July, Jordan’s Interior Minister Mazen Al-Farrayh called his Syrian counterpart Mohammad Al-Rahmoun to discuss the full opening of the Jaber-Nassib land crossing between the two countries.
But a day after the border crossing was due to open, Jordan announced on 31 July that it was temporarily closing it due to “security developments” on the Syrian side.
This was the result of an escalation of violence between opposition groups and the regime in the southwestern city of Daraa, a region dubbed the ‘cradle of the revolution’ against Assad.
Syrian rebels had reportedly cut off the main highway linking the two countries in what seemed like a serious blow to the regime.
Jordanian exports have been severely affected by the closure of the borders and a delegation of Jordan’s Chamber of Commerce was in Damascus on 23 July to discuss expanding bilateral trade between the two countries. Jordanian exporters have been pushing the Amman government to ease customs duties on imports from Syria.
Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the crossing facilitated trade flows between Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon to the north, and between Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf to the south, with nearly 17 per cent of Jordanian exports passing through the border crossing before 2011.
The border was reopened partially in 2018 when Syrian regime forces retook it.
For Jordan’s beleaguered economy, the opening of the border crossing is vital to its exports and transport sectors. During his meetings with the US administration last month, the king is believed to have raised the issue of exempting Jordan from sanctions under the Caesar Act for trading with Syria. But there was no official report on the US reaction.
"In any case, these latest developments could not have taken place without an American green light"
Other than trade, Jordan hopes to renew talks with Syria on supplying the parched kingdom with additional waters from the Yarmouk River. In return, Jordan hopes to supply Syria with electricity and essential materials for reconstruction, especially in southern Syria.
The king is pushing Washington and the EU to form a task force on Syria that will engage both the Russians and the regime in an effort to end the stalemate and launch a new political process.
Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq have joined forces to form an economic alliance that could be open to Syria in the future under what Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi labelled as a “new Levant”.
Commenting on the king’s statements, political analyst and head of the Jerusalem Center for Political Studies, Orieb Al-Rintawi, told The New Arab that Abdullah had summarised the situation in Syria by underlining the fact that three-quarters of the country is now under regime control.
“Calls to topple the regime are disappearing in the international arena and what is needed now is to launch a political process,” he said. “Jordan has a great interest in ending the Syrian crisis since it has suffered from the border closure, the waves of refugees now numbering 1.3 million, terrorism, and others,” Rintawi added.
Economic analyst and editor of Al-Maqar news site Salameh Al-Dirawi told The New Arab that the issue of the Caesar Act and its destructive impact on the Jordanian economy was raised by the king during his US visit.
“Jordan has paid a high price for adhering to international law and for its humanitarian gestures,” he said. “In the past ten years our commitment to Syrian refugees has cost the treasury more than $13 billion, not to mention the impact on unemployment, water and infrastructure,” Dirawi said.
He said that Jordan had asked the US administration to be exempted from sanctions under the Caesar Act and that Washington is studying the Jordanian request.
“Until the Arab Spring our exports to Syria were more than $200 million so we need to revive our economic ties with Syria and one area that benefits Jordan will be in exporting electricity to southern Syria,” he concluded.
Since the eruption of the Syrian civil war, Jordan has kept the Syrian embassy open with an ambassador, while also partially maintaining the Jordanian embassy in Damascus.
In 2019, Amman appointed a chargé d'affaires and observers in Jordan believe it may soon name an ambassador in a bid to normalise ties fully.
Rintawi says that what King Abdullah has suggested reflects the thinking in many Arab and Gulf capitals. “Many [governments] have re-established contacts with the Syrian regime because the status quo will bring further destruction that could spillover,” he added.
“In any case, these latest developments could not have taken place without an American green light.”
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Follow him on Twitter: @plato010