01.11.2013 Author: Pogos Anastasov

Is Jordan taking the place of Qatar and Turkey?

87As reported by Middle Eastern regional newspapers and online publications, Fatah Central Committee member Abbas Zaki recently visited Damascus. According to these publications, he came there not to strengthen Palestinian-Syrian relations, but to establish contact between the leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic and the new authorities of Qatar, or at least to sound out such a prospect.

Palestinian authorities have denied these reports, and Abbas Zaki left with only a few cryptic phrases, suggesting that he had completed the hajj, and that media reports were inaccurate. Whether these Lebanese publications are telling the truth or not, we can only guess, but the fact is that under Sheikh Tamim, who came to power in Doha in June of this year, Qatar’s activity related to Syria has quickly begun to decline.

The redefinition of its role in Syrian affairs also began in Turkey. While it is true that opposition meetings in Istanbul continue, and Western visitors are still travelling there, but it is now happening against the background of authorities’ construction of the wall along the border with Syria. Turkish authorities are evidently worried that the Syrian plague of extremism (Al-Qaeda operates in the north of Syria), could quickly disperse throughout the country, which is well-fertilised for the propagation of all kinds of radicalism, both ethnic and religious.

Since the military’s return to power in Egypt, Cairo has also lost interest in the Syrian issue. It is obviously more interested in Bashar al-Assad’s struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood than in the process of overthrowing the Syrian regime. Egyptian authorities themselves actively oppose attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis to destabilise the situation in the Sinai Peninsula and they have no need for this extra hotbed of tension in the region.

Other countries of the “Arab Spring,” such as Tunisia and Libya, no longer support the Syrian opposition, although all of the rhetoric persists. For these and many other Arab countries emerging from the changes of recent years, it is about self-survival. As noted last week in the analytic report ofthe British bank HSBC,the direct losses of 7 countries in North Africa and the Middle East from the “Arab Spring” reached 800 billion dollars. “The losses were caused primarily by the fall of GDP, as well as by the weakening financial situation in the countries caught up in the midst of the ‘Arab Spring,'” the report states.

In this context, the role of Jordan seems surprising, after remaining in the shadows all these years. A small Arab country with a population of 6 million people, many of whom are Palestinians, Jordan has long tried to keep out of the political upheaval in the Middle East. This was due to internal disorder. When, in 2011, at the rise of the “Arab Spring,” the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood put forward a number of demands to reform the political system in Jordan (the head of the “brothers,” Hamsa Mansour, demanded that the prime minister be nominated by the dominant parliamentary faction, rather than being appointed by the king, and that members of the upper house of parliament be elected by the people, not appointed by the monarch), King AbdullahIIseverely restricted the political activity of radical Islamists. Then, in October 2012, the “brothers,” as well as the local Salafis, tried to escalate the situation. However, faced with the hard line of the authorities, they decided to postpone their revolution until the moment that Assad is overthrown, announced a boycott of the parliamentary elections of January 23, 2013, and focused their efforts on supporting the Syrian rebels.

But since 2012, and without a declaration of war, King Abdullah has opened military training camps on his territory, where, under the supervision of CIA specialists,Syrian oppositionists of the “moderate wing” are passing through basic military training. Moreover, after a major failure of the armed opposition in Syria (primarily in Qusayr this spring) insurgents training has even increased and a streamlined flow has been established.

This all looks illogical from an outside perspective. Jordan is a fragile country. It was already significantly weakened by the arrival of 600,000 refugees from Syria, and even before that it dealt with the influx of refugees from Iraq and several waves of Palestinian immigration from occupied Palestinian territories. Jordan simply does not have enough resources – not only as far as money, but also water and electricity.

So what pushes King Abdullah to get involved in the more than questionable matter of complicity in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad?

The answer can be found from both outside and inside Jordan itself. After the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the change of power in Qatar, and the changing attitude in Turkey regarding the Syrian crisis (it is not over yet), Jordan remains the only real springboard for intervention against Syria. Of course, this is not to suggest an intervention organised by Amman, but by the U.S. and its staunch ally, Saudi Arabia. This autumn, after Washington’s rejection of a military operation against Syria, attempts are apparently being made to implement an older script: to create a buffer zone in the south of this long-suffering country (around Deraa) and to organise some sort of opposition government there, in order to “even the odds” of the Syrian regime and its opponents at “Geneva-2,” when it takes place.

Jordan’s consent to its strictly subordinate role in Syrian affairs, which clearly runs contrary to national interests, is also due to the country’s extremely weak economy, which is completely dependent on aid from the U.S. and the rich countries of the Persian Gulf. In December 2011, these countries furthermore promised to accept Jordan to the Gulf Cooperation Council, which, as conceived by the King of Saudi Arabia, should turn into a political-military alliance.

Moreover, it is reported that Western countries are now putting unprecedented pressure on Amman in order to force it to agree to the naturalisation of Palestinians (of which there are more than 70% there) as part of Washington’s desired settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This could be a major blow to the Hashemite monarchy and could lead to the implementation of Israel’s plans to transform the country into a Palestinian state. Jordan resists, but its strength is limited.

It is entirely possible that Jordan will be forced to agree to such a choice, but in that case it would have to “release the ballast”: to deport the Syrian refugees who have become an impossible burden on the country’s economy. But they can only be sent away under two conditions: either political settlement in Syria, which still looks unlikely, or by creating the aforementioned Syrian rebel-controlled zones around Deraa, where Syrian migrants could be “released.” However, its active participation in the imminent U.S. and Saudi operations in Deraa could seriously backfire on Jordan, if it goes ahead with it. The question is, do they understand this in Amman?

Pogos Anastasov, political scientist and orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.