The renormalisation of ties between Amman and Damascus comes after multiple shifts in the Hashemite Kingdom’s foreign policy over the years, with economic rationality playing a crucial factor.
The October 3 phone call between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad marked a milestone in the Assad government’s reintegration into the Arab region’s diplomatic fold. Although the renormalisation of Jordanian-Syrian relations does not sit well with western capitals, the Amman-Damascus rapprochement is a predictable outcome of shifts in Jordanian foreign policy which have been in motion since 2014-2015.
In recent weeks bilateral relations have warmed. This month’s phone conversation came only four days after Jordan reopened its main border crossing with Syria, which occurred less than one week after Jordan and Syria’s chief diplomats spoke on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Their meeting in New York came only four days after Jordan’s army chief of staff and Syria’s Defense Minister met in Amman.
Earlier last month, Jordan hosted a quadrilateral meeting between its energy minister and his Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian counterparts in which the revival of the “Arab Gas Pipeline” was discussed — itself another “diplomatic victory” for Assad’s government in the region. Also last month came the announcement that Jordan’s state carrier would resume its flights to Damascus.
When King Abdullah II and Syria’s president spoke this month for the first time in a decade, they discussed “reinforcing cooperation in the interests of the two countries and people”. The Jordanian royal court explained that the King and Assad talked about Jordan and Syria’s “brotherly” relations and “ways to enhance cooperation between them,” while Jordan’s head of state vowed to support “efforts to preserve Syria’s sovereignty, stability, territorial integrity and people”.
Moving past hostilities of 2011
Amman’s foreign policy has evolved significantly from the earliest stage of the conflict when Jordan bet on the Syrian rebels and sponsored such anti-regime forces fighting in Daraa, known as the “cradle of the Syrian uprising”. Back in 2011, Jordan joined 17 other Arab League members in voting in favor of Syria’s suspension from the body. In November of that year King Abdullah II told the BBC that “if Bashar has the interests of his country, he would step down…”
In mid-2012, the then-CIA director David H. Petraeus proposed arming and training Syrian rebels as part of a plan that Obama first rejected. But in 2013, when the King of Jordan and other world leaders lobbied the US administration to train and covertly arm rebel militias based in Jordan, Obama approved it. “…King Abdullah II of Jordan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel…argued that the United States should take a more active role in trying to end the conflict,” as the New York Times reported.
But Amman’s position was unclear. The Jordanian monarch also offered to serve as a mediator between Assad’s government and rebels fighting it. Also, amid the summer of 2013 when the region was anticipating a US military strike against Syria, King Abdullah II declared that his country would not permit the US to use it as a stage ground for any attacks against Syria.
By the time of Daesh’s meteoric rise to power in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the Jordanian leadership ceased to view regime change in Damascus as a priority. Instead, the new thinking in Amman was that Daesh (not Assad) posed the gravest threat to Jordanian security.
The intensification of Russia’s direct military intervention in 2015 did much to convince Jordanian officialdom that the Assad government was not on the verge of collapse. In the process, Moscow also succeeded in terms of bringing Amman somewhat closer to Russia’s sphere of geopolitical influence, convincing the Hashemite Kingdom’s leadership that the path to Jordanian interests being advanced in Syria would go through the Kremlin, not any western power.
Within this context, from 2014-2015 onto the present, Jordan has been slowly warming up to Assad’s government.
In September 2018, Jordanian and Syrian officials met for technical discussions about the reopening of cross-border trade between their two countries. In January 2019, Amman-Damascus relations upgraded once Jordan appointed a senior diplomat to Syria. By July 2021, the King of Jordan came to Washington and told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Assad is “here to stay”.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and period of low oil prices, economic considerations are becoming increasingly important to the foreign policy agendas of Middle Eastern powers. Ideological and political differences are, to some extent, being shelved as governments across the region seek to find opportunities for greater economic cooperation and integration.
This is relevant to improvements in relations between Qatar and the states which blockaded Doha until the January 2021 al-Ula summit, the warming of Saudi-Oman relations, Egypt and Turkey’s partial rapprochement, a calming of tensions between Turkey and the UAE, and growing engagement between Tehran on one side and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other.
Within this wider context, economic issues undeniably factor into Jordan’s approach to Syria.
Hard-hit by Covid-19 and the massive influx of refugees over the past decade, Jordan’s economy faces major problems. Since 2020, the Jordanian economy has contracted 1.6 percent. Described by the country’s Finance Minister Mohamad Al Ississ as the “biggest threat” to Jordan, unemployment reached approximately 25 percent during the first quarter of 2021 with youth unemployment soaring to roughly 50 percent.
By reopening relations with Syria, Jordan aims to benefit from cross-border trade amid this period of economic suffering felt by millions of Jordanians.
“Jordan is very important for reviving the economic movement in Syria and increasing its exports, which will also restore the economic movement in Jordan to how it was before the Syrian war,” said Hosam Ayesh, a Jordanian economist, in a September 29 interview with The Jordan Times.
“This opening of the last closed door with one of the Kingdom’s neighbouring countries will be a significant achievement.”
Indeed, not only Jordan but several other countries in the Middle East have much to gain economically from Syria’s return to the Arab region’s diplomatic fold.
“For the regional economy to come back to life, Syria must take [back] its normal place within the Arab world,” explained Dr Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “It is vital to the economic health of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq as well as Egypt.”
US won’t let bygones be bygones with Assad
Amman’s moves to boost Jordan’s relationship with Syria fit into a wider effort by numerous Arab states to reintegrate Syria back into the regional fold. Yet it will be important to observe how the Biden administration reacts to the renormalisation of Syria’s relations with fellow Arab states.
On one hand, Washington’s position is that Assad is an illegitimate head of state. For the foreseeable future, that position is highly unlikely to change. The US also firmly opposes Arab states re-formalising relations with Assad’s government given current conditions. Washington would like Arab governments to align with Qatar’s position, which is that the Syrian president has no legitimacy because his crimes have put him beyond the pale.
On the other hand, the White House must be pragmatic and realise that preventing the economic collapse of Lebanon will require the US to ease sanctions on Syria. More specifically, the US ambassador to Beirut implied that Washington would provide Caesar Act waivers to Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon to allow the revival of the “Arab Gas Pipeline” so Lebanon’s energy needs can be met.
Looking ahead, various Arab states will probably continue lobbying Washington for a lifting of the Caesar Act. But the Biden administration might not be willing to give in so easily.
Questions about if, when, and how regional powers should engage Assad’s regime could become sources of greater tension between the US and its friends in the Arab region which want to let bygones be bygones with the Syrian president.
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