King Abdullah II of Jordan was one of the first Arab leaders in 2011 to call on Syrian President Bashar al Assad to step down, and Assad accused Jordan of being “part of the war on Syria.” However, in 2017, several diplomatic signs pointed to an accelerated rapprochement of relations between the two countries.
This new dynamic was initially characterized by a series of bilateral meetings in September 2021, ranging from meetings of foreign ministers on the sidelines of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly to the visit of the Syrian defense minister in Amman. The symbolic phone call of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to King Abdullah II of Jordan on October 3, 2021 to discuss “ways to enhance cooperation” between the two countries was a sign of the accelerated rapprochement of diplomatic relations after a decade of standstill.
For several researchers, including Armenak Tokmajyan, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, these new relations between Damascus and Amman are understood to be realpolitik linked to the international community’s failure to resolve the war in Syria and its direct impact on Jordan.
The relations between Damascus and Amman are realpolitik due to failure to resolve the Syrian war and its impact on Jordan.
“I think when Russia intervened in Syria back in 2015 and subsequently helped the regime to recapture many rebel strongholds—including Dar’a on Jordan’s border—Amman realized that Assad was there to stay,” Tokmajyan told Inside Arabia. “At its core, Jordan opened up relations with Syria because all approaches to solve the Syrian crisis failed. And the policy of isolating Syria politically and economically under the Trump administration did not only fail to yield any results, but it also directly harmed Jordan’s interests.”
Economically, Jordan has suffered greatly from the Syrian crisis. While several northern cities such as Irbid and Ramtha were historically dependent on trade with Syria, all trade routes have been impacted. With the worsening of the economic crisis due to COVID-19, the Hashemite Kingdom hopes to regain its role as a hub not only for major regional trade routes but also for regional projects.
The country also seems willing to participate in reconstruction efforts in Syria, as well as in regional projects that would require a greater political re-engagement of Syria in the region. This is the direction that both the cross-border pipeline project to transport gas from Egypt and the project to bring electricity from Jordan to Lebanon are heading in.
Several security concerns have also pushed Jordan to reopen discussions with its Syrian neighbor.
Several security concerns have also pushed Jordan to reopen discussions with its Syrian neighbor. The recapture by the Syrian army of the Nassib crossing, which had been under rebel control since April 2015, has served as a talking point for the reopening of the borders.
In an interview, Amman-based political analyst Amer al Sabaileh, told Inside Arabia that Jordan is particularly concerned about the Iranian militias present in Syria. “[Iranian militias] rooted in parts of Syria make the challenges more difficult as these groups are present across borders when it comes to drugs, arms, and other illegal traffics,” Sabaileh noted. “All this has prompted Jordan to start thinking constructively about how to find a solution to this crisis, including a practical step-by-step solution.”
Tokmajyan recalls, however, that the rapprochement between Syria and Jordan depends first and foremost on Damascus’ efforts to resolve its security problems. “We haven’t yet seen full normalization between the two sides. I think that depends on what Damascus could and would address [in regards] some of Jordan’s major interests and worries. Border security and curbing organized drugs smuggling to Jordan and via Jordan to the Gulf countries is on top of Jordan’s worries,” he said.
A rapprochement also depends on Washington, as the US is one of Jordan’s most important donors and historical ally. “The international environment, especially Trump Administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy against Syria, was not suitable for any rapprochement with Syria,” Toknajyan explained. “Under the Biden administration, the situation changed. Biden stood back from the ineffective ‘maximum pressure’ policy, which in turn enabled Jordan to make the case that keeping Syria isolated is ineffective and against Jordan’s interest.”
A rapprochement depends on Washington, as the US is one of Jordan’s most important donors and historical ally.
This information was confirmed by al Sabaileh, who noted a relaxation of sanctions with the 2019 Caesar law. “Even with the Caesar Law, the Americans make exceptions and different interpretations for specific situations such as new humanitarian aid to Syria. As such, the Jordanians move according to the American light, which is neither red nor green but rather orange,” He added. Indeed, the Jordanian King met with President Joe Biden at the White House on July 19, 2021 to plead for a reduction in the sanctions linked to the Caesar law, which came into force in 2020.
Several sources also mention that before discussing the normalization of relations between Syria and Jordan, the Hashemite Kingdom should review its policy of changing officials at the decision-making level and managing its neighbors.
This is according to al Sabaileh who describes the limits of the new rapprochement between Syria and Jordan while explaining that “Historically, [many of] the people who are part of the Jordanian political system are against Syria. With the different meetings between the two countries, they are now openly expressing their anti-Syrian sentiment.” In Sabaileh’s view, if there are no changes in the Jordanian diplomatic team attached to the Syria file, there can be no viable path to the normalization of relations between the two countries.
Such misgivings aside, the current geopolitical context represents a unique opportunity for Syria to be reintroduced into the regional and international decision-making system. Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates have intensified their efforts to bring Syria back into the Arab League, a step that according to al Sabaileh, could help Assad be “recognized on the international level,” but also “would help many Western countries to break the taboo of dealing with Syria.” Al Sabaileh concludes that whether it is a question of rapprochement with Jordan or with other Arab countries, Syria is in a better position today than in the past since it has nothing left to lose.