by Paul Iddon.
Shortly after Russia’s military deployment to Syria, the Jordanians agreed to Russian offers to establish a “special working mechanism” in Amman for military coordination in Syria — a country in which both have interests, some of which diverge.
For starters, Jordan has for years backed a network of Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in southern Syria, many of which have been trained by the CIA. That group has been leading the Southern Front campaign aimed at capturing and holding onto Syrian territory from the regime and fending off attacks by the likes of Islamic State (ISIS). But all of the Southern FSA’s major battles and engagements to date have been against the Syrian regime and its paramilitary allies.
Last summer, the Financial Times reported that Amman might have plans to bolster these forces by establishing a buffer zone in Syrian territory which could even include the Syrian city of Deraa — the first city to revolt against the Bashar al-Assad regime back in March 2011. While the establishment of such a zone was proposed as being motivated by humanitarian concerns — like its similar, long proposed, Turkish counterpart up north — it was clear that direct Jordanian military intervention in that area would give additional cover and protection to the Southern Front, whose forces constitute a de-facto bulwark that gives Jordan additional protection from the turmoil which has engulfed its northern neighbor.
Now Russia and Jordan are quietly working together. This “coordination” comes after the Kremlin claimed it was ready to work with the FSA if the rebels focused their efforts on fighting ISIS instead of Assad. Amman could possibly be open to accepting a similar deal which would enable its Southern Front allies to remain in control of Syrian territory — Amman certainly doesn’t want to see them targeted by Russian jets — provided they defend it against ISIS and other similar Islamist groups. The FSA has rejected the mere notion of such coordination, saying they do not trust Moscow given its long support of Assad.
This isn’t the first time eyebrows have been raised over Jordan’s relations with the Kremlin. Russia is even building Jordan a nuclear power plant as part of a $10 billion deal. In April 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Amman and had a very cordial discussion with Jordan’s King Abdullah. Their diverging interests in Syria were discussed at length throughout that meeting. Mere days later, Royal Jordanian Air Force jets destroyed a convoy of Syrian rebels along the Syrian-Jordanian frontier. This led to some speculation that Jordan was reversing its support for those anti-Assad rebels at the behest of Moscow.
Since then, there have been increasing fears in Jordan that these forces have been or are being infiltrated by Islamists. In April, Islamist fighters belonging to the Jabhat al-Nusra jihadi group capitalized on the Southern Front’s capture of the highly important Nassib Syria-Jordan border-crossing by kidnapping an estimated 35 civilians.
Indeed, since that time Jordan’s main preoccupation with Syria has notably shifted from sponsoring and hosting opponents of Assad’s rule to focusing on security against Islamist threats. Something which, like many other powers, has seen it forgo its desires for regime change in Damascus, potentially indefinitely.
It’s worth remembering that when ISIS burned alive the captured Jordanian pilot Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh — whose F-16 had malfunctioned and crashed during a bombing run as part of the wider U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition – Damascus urged Amman to cooperate with it against ISIS and other such Islamist groups. Amman hasn’t to date. However, it has since become much more preoccupied with seeing these ISIS forces combated. The Russian offer of supporting the FSA might be seen in Amman as a way out of sponsoring regime change efforts through the Southern Front.
An ideal solution for Amman would be brokering a deal which would allow the FSA to retain the territory it holds in southern Syria provided the rebels focus their efforts and resources on keeping the Islamists out of those areas. Russia knows that Assad is unlikely to be able to re-consolidate his hold over all the country, whose Sunni-majority population see him as an enemy.
Damascus, Moscow and Tehran doubtlessly know that and while Washington still repudiates Assad and refuses to work with him its primary focus in Syria is destroying ISIS. When Washington sent 54 Syrian fighters it had trained into Northern Syria over the summer to fight ISIS and al-Nusra Islamists, the United States told them they were not authorized to take on forces under Assad’s command. Similarly, the small detachment of 50 special forces America is deploying to Northern Syria are being sent solely to help forces fighting ISIS in the country’s northeast.
Fears about the safety of Syria’s Druze minority, who are huddled in their sanctuary community on Mount Druze in southern Syria, is of concern to some in the region who fear Islamist’s could overrun and attempt a genocide — like ISIS’ attempted genocide of the Yezidi’s in Northern Iraq. Israel’s own Druze minority has called on the army to intervene to protect their Syrian kinsmen. While Israel hasn’t done so, it has called on contacts it has within the FSA and other fighters it has provided treatment to in army field hospitals in the Golan Heights to ensure they are doing their utmost to stop any Islamist infiltration of Mount Druze. Additionally, Israel has passed on some of its older Cobra helicopter gunships to Jordan free of charge to help that kingdom beef up its own Cobra fleet. Such aircraft may prove adequate to mounting a defense of that mountain stronghold.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Amman gradually give up on regime change efforts, while continuing to support the FSA provided the rebels counter the Islamists in their midst. Moscow would likely welcome such a compromise. Even though Russia intervened directly in Syria to help Assad, it isn’t as committed to his longevity as Iran. And the Kremlin’s view of Amman as a useful arbiter for the conflict was reinforced by a recent statement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the recent talks on the Syrian crisis in Vienna. He said that “Jordan will be in charge” of an effort to “compile a common list of terrorist groups in Syria,” according to Reuters.
This is just the latest indicator that Amman’s role as an arbiter is growing, just as solution to ending the war is needed most.
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Regarding the fight against terrorism, and pursuant to clause 6 of the Vienna Communique, the ISSG reiterated that Da’esh, Nusra, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants and endorsed by the UN Security Council, must be defeated. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan agreed to help develop among intelligence and military community representatives a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists, with a target of completion by the beginning of the political process under UN auspices. — Statement of the International Syria Support Group, 14.11.2015.