Where Does Jordan Stand Toward the Syrian Regime? Closer Than You Might Think

Haid Haid

Seven hard years since the Syrian civil war erupted across its border, what is the state of Jordan’s relationship with Damascus? To be sure, Amman’s Syria policy has been bifurcated, seeing it maintain bridges with all parties: while it gave military support to Syrian rebels operating along its border, it also kept up diplomatic relations with Damascus. But with what many perceive to be the coming denouement to the war, there has been a marked shift in Amman’s posture. Multiple sources confirm there has been a significant increase in coordination between Syrian intelligence agencies and their Jordanian counterparts. They are restoring ties, ostensibly, to coordinate efforts against terrorism. But in fact, it is a sign that Amman is dramatically repositioning itself vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict. Jordan is growing closer to the Assad regime than it ever did throughout the war.

Some history is necessary to set the requisite context. Jordan, understandably, has always seen it in its national security interest to mitigate any spill-over from the violence across its border. During the first few months of the uprising – when it appeared that Bashar Al Assad’s regime could soon topple – it made a daring public stand against the Syrian leader: the country was the first Arab nation to call for Assad’s resignation. One imagines that this was to position the country favorably toward a possible new regime. However, when peaceful demonstrations against Assad turned into armed conflict, Jordan pivoted and agreed, at the instigation of its closest regional ally, Saudi Arabia, to become involved in arming the rebels. But the US – leery of supporting another regime change in the Middle East – was more cautious in supporting Syrian rebels, which pulled Amman in a slightly different direction. The result was a carefully choreographed dance that saw Jordan allowing weapons to cross its border with southern Syria, but only to vetted rebel groups.

Indeed, Jordan’s record in the past seven years has been one of calibrations and recalibrations.

In 2013, it stepped up its engagement with the rebels. That year, the CIA opened the Military Operations Center, or MOC, in Amman, which coordinated military support and funding from several regional and international powers to the rebels. The kingdom also allowed on its territory the training of anti­-Assad rebels, part of a covert program by the CIA. Yet, despite these efforts, the kingdom resisted any pressure to directly intervene in Syria or to allow foreign forces to use its border without strict supervision. During all this time, Jordan and Syria continued to operate embassies in each other’s capital. Quite a balancing act.

Two years later, Jordan had to readjust once more. With the rise of jihadi groups in Syria, Amman began to distance itself from the various warring factions. Fearing the security ramifications from the increased strength of these groups – namely Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front (today rebranded as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham), and ISIS – Amman’s priorities changed from supporting the toppling of Assad to containing the threat from jihadis. At the same time, its allies also became less focused on Assad. Saudi Arabia was by then deep in the war in Yemen, while the US was more focused on fighting ISIS wherever it materialized.

Yet, while Jordan became less supportive of the rebels, it did not turn against their cause. Instead, as several Jordanian officials have told this writer, Jordan focused its attention on support for Syrian tribal forces – seen as less corrupt than others and which maintained no ties with jihadi movements – to secure its borders and to provide it with intelligence. In return, the tribes received aid and access to Jordan. The officials, however, were adamant that no lethal supplies were made available to the tribes.

Returning to the present, Jordan is again doing another pirouette. But while Amman had previously seen that its security and national interests rested on delicately balancing between the rebels and Damascus, today it may be throwing out balance in favor of strategic partnership with the Assad regime.

How has that occurred? With Russia’s military intervention in the war – tipping the balance toward Damascus – and the US’s decision to terminate its support to rebel groups, Amman has been quietly aligning itself with the Assad regime. A steady flow of statements from Jordanian officials over the past year signal that Amman has no objection to full restoration of ties with Damascus. But, more importantly, these statements also signal Jordan’s willingness to actively facilitate a political settlement to allows the Assad regime to restore control over crossing points along the two countries’ common border.

Several Jordanian officials have told this writer that full Syrian government control over the border areas is now Amman’s preferred option. This would, they believe, guarantee Jordan’s border security, revive its economy, help restore full relations with the Syrian regime and place Jordan in a sweet spot when the country begins reconstruction. This does not come as a surprise, as it is no secret that Amman had tried, until last October, to broker an agreement between rebel groups operating in the south and the Syrian regime to reopen Jordan’s main crossing point with Syria at Nasseeb (known as Jaber in Jordan). Jordanian officials tell this writer that despite previous failures, negotiations are still ongoing to explore other options that do not necessarily require the rebels’ consensus or participation.

Jordan’s new policy will likely have a significant impact on rebel groups in southern Syria, especially amid growing fears that Damascus’s next offensive might be in the province of Daraa, near the Jordanian border. While such an offensive could destabilize Jordanian areas that abut the border, Amman might still base its response on calculations of the long-term benefits that could come because of it. Especially if such benefits are agreed upon in advance. Seven years after the Syrian conflict began, Jordan seems to be now engaged in a strategic reconsideration that is placing a bet on Assad winning the war.

Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.