Two nations fear that possible Russian withdrawal might allow Tehran and its proxy militias to fill the vacuum, creating more problems in the war-battered region

Jordanian and US officials have begun negotiations on ensuring control of southern Syria, where Iran and militias backed by Tehran could fill a vacuum created by an anticipated withdrawal of Russian troops.

Local insurgent sources confirmed the meetings at the Al-Tanf base, a military garrison in southern Syria controlled by the US.

The agenda of the US-Jordanian consultations are primarily on strengthening security coordination between the two countries and expanding cooperation between the kingdom’s forces and several armed groups fighting Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

According to members of Magawir al-Thawra—a US-backed rebel group in Syria—the meetings were organised at the request of Amman, which has increasingly expressed concern over increasing Iranian influence in Syria’s southern provinces and the parallel risks of “asset recovery” by Daesh, a term that refers to the possibility of the terrorist group regrouping and recapturing areas it had lost to the US-led forces. 

Representatives of insurgent groups familiar with the content of the talks stress that the US-Jordanian dialogue was not aimed at fighting Assad’s army, which is known to be working closely with pro-Iranian forces.

Last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan said he was sure that Tehran and its proxies were trying to capitalise on Russia’s declining attention to the Syrian arena and increase their military presence. According to him, Amman foresees “a possible escalation of problems” at its borders. 

He feared that a Russian withdrawal from southern Syria, to concentrate more on the Ukraine front, would allow Iran-backed militias to fill the void.

Against this background, insurgents operating in the al-Tanf zone and cooperating with the US make it clear that their goals and those of Amman are now closer than ever.

War against drugs

Russia’s reduced presence in Syria has been the subject of speculation since the start of the war in Ukraine. 

As the opposition media noted, the number of Russian troops has decreased, for example, in the Deraa region. According to representatives of the 8th Brigade, formed from “reconciled” groups considered to be loyal to Russia, the situation was indicative that the Syrian theatre was no longer a priority for Moscow.

The balance in the region has not yet changed fundamentally, the Southerners argue, but they also say that this does not cancel out the “marked increase in drug smuggling operations and attempts to conquer Jordanian territory” by pro-Iranian forces.

The Hashemite Kingdom’s border guards have been recording increasing attempts to smuggle prohibited substances. 

Since the beginning of 2022, Jordanian law enforcers have seized more than 20 million Captagon pills, a Syrian-made cheap amphetamine. It’s a record haul compared to the 14 million pills seized in the entire previous year.

Jordanian Defence Ministry spokesman Mustafa al-Hiyari noted that illegal traffickers “sometimes receive support from undisciplined groups of Syrian border guards and other forces”. As a result, clashes at the borders are now increasingly resulting in gun-fights.

Jordanian retired General Mamoun Abu Nuwar believes that the Hashemite Kingdom “cannot fight the war against drugs alone” and Amman needs help in strengthening intelligence from allied states. “If it is necessary, we must close our borders,” he noted. The Jordanian side has resorted to this method more than once in recent years when internal strife erupted in southern Syria, but it only seemed like a half-measure.

Blow to normalisation

Some time ago, Jordan was considered a contender to restore official relations with Damascus. However, the current situation in the south of Syria makes this extremely difficult, experts of the Jusur analytical centre say. According to them, if the Russian side lowers the bar on the “Iranian” issue, and high-ranking Syrians actively visit Tehran, it affects the conviction of Arab players such as Jordan and the Gulf countries that the Assad regime can be ‘taken out of the hands’ of the Iranians.

Frustration with the regime thus increases. “Consequently, efforts to normalise diplomatic and economic relations with Damascus must be put on hold,” Jusur says, citing possible arguments of Arab states that once considered returning Syria to the circle of regional states.

The trend is indirectly evident in Saudi Arabia, which was also expected to take steps toward reconciliation with Damascus. Its joint counterterrorism financing body created with the US has put Husam Qaterji, the CEO of the Syrian energy company Qaterji and owner of the Al-Maham security company, on a terrorist list on charges of business ties to banned organisations.

The fact that a businessman close to the presidential palace was involved in trading raw materials not only with YPG/PKK terrorists but also with Daesh, is well-known. However, the fact that Qaterji has been outlawed by a joint decision of Riyadh and Washington seems to be a rather eloquent signal.

A separate factor that may reduce the attractiveness of the idea of legitimising the Assad regime again is the tension between the US and Russia over the war in Ukraine. Thus, the global situation in international relations may well force the administration of President Joe Biden to apply leverage on Arab countries, which have previously made clear their readiness to normalise relations with Assad, the Jusur researchers conclude.

Under such circumstances, speculation about Damascus regaining its diplomatic weight may be extremely premature.

Source: TRT World