The protracted civil war in Syria has aligned the interests of Jordan and Israel to prevent southern Syria from becoming a haven for Sunni extremists or for Iran-backed Shia militias like Hezbollah. Both countries view military activities by such groups as threats and are using their developing ties with Russia to try to mitigate the fallout. In the process, Jordan, in particular, has changed its views toward Bashar al-Assad, believing now that he may be the lesser of many evils.
The parallel interests of Jordan and Israel in Syria, however, have not translated into closer relations on issues regarding Palestine, especially Jerusalem. Indeed, relations between Jordan and Israel are still tense over this past summer’s incident when an Israeli embassy security guard killed two Jordanian citizens in Amman, after which the guard was celebrated as a hero by Israel. Despite their formal peace treaty and longstanding channels of communication that predate the treaty, Israel and Jordan are inextricably tied to the contentious Palestinian conflict in which differences over Israeli settlements, borders, and the highly emotive Jerusalem issue keep surfacing.
Agreement on Iran and Hezbollah
Jordan’s King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to speak openly and alarmingly about a so-called “Shia crescent” that was enveloping the Middle East, at least in his eyes, in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq. What he meant was that Shia Iran was extending its influence through Iraq (which had installed a Shia-dominated government) to Syria (which has a government dominated by Alawites, who represent an offshoot of mainstream Shia Islam) and into Lebanon, where Hezbollah, as a radical Shia group, had become part of the government and retained its own formidable militia. This Shia “arc,” extending from Tehran to Beirut, was just to the north and east of Jordan, and it was making moderate Sunni leaders like King Abdullah very nervous.
Meanwhile, Israeli leaders have long been worried about the Iran-Hezbollah nexus that enabled the Party of God to become a fierce military force in Lebanon and to challenge Israel in several confrontations over the past three decades. In addition, the anti-Israel rhetoric of Iranian leaders and Iran’s nuclear program, made many Israeli leaders see Iran as an existential threat. In the spring of 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even lambasted the then-pending Iran nuclear deal before the US Congress, which was a clear slap in the face to the Obama Administration that was keen on concluding the deal. Netanyahu believed that the deal would not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and would give it substantial sanctions relief, enabling the Islamic Republic to undertake even more anti-Israeli activities in the region through its Arab surrogates.
Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, however, had an ambiguous attitude toward the Syrian leadership. On the one hand, they saw Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, like his late father Hafez, as a facilitator of the Iran-Hezbollah connection, as many Iranian weapons from Tehran to Hezbollah passed through Damascus. On the other hand, both Assads had kept the Syrian-Israeli border quiet, adhering strictly to the 1974 disengagement agreement on the Golan Heights.
Challenges of the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian civil war has posed a challenge to both Jordan and Israel. Jordan has had to deal with a huge influx of Syrian refugees (perhaps as many as 1.4 million in 2015 but currently at about 655,000), placing a strain on the country’s finances—though the Jordanian government’s burden has been eased somewhat by funding from the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. Politically, Amman has tried to keep most of the refugees in camps in the northern part of Jordan so that the political impact of the Syrian civil war would be minimized in Jordanian society. At the same time and at least initially, King Abdullah, like other Sunni leaders in the region, came out against Bashar al-Assad and sought to aid moderate Syrian rebels in conjunction with western countries like the United States. This “covert” assistance to the rebels did not stay secret for long, and while it underscored Jordan’s desire for a moderate Sunni regime to assume power in Damascus, it did not result in these rebels’ victory.
Indeed, as the civil war dragged on, the moderate rebels were overtaken by Sunni extremists within the rebel camp, which made the chances of moderates gaining the upper hand in the civil war an elusive goal. And with the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in 2013-2014, Jordan has had to shift its focus from Syria to the fight against IS, though it has done so chiefly through air strikes and not ground troops, even after a captured Jordanian pilot was brutally burned alive by IS in February 2015.
At the same time, areas of southwestern Syria near the Jordanian border became a hotbed of activity for anti-Assad extremists that included the Nusra Front (a former al-Qaeda affiliate known now as Jabhat Fath al-Sham) and some IS affiliates, as well as Hezbollah and other Shia groups fighting on the side of the Assad regime. For example, over this past summer, an IS affiliate called the Khalid ibn al-Walid Brigade, active in the Yarmouk Basin, reportedly attacked several areas along the Jordanian border and killed border guards and civilians. In addition, Shia groups allied with the Assad regime have been moving east toward the Iraqi border (just to the north of Jordan’s northeastern border) to try to link up with pro-Iranian forces along the Iraqi-Syrian border. None of these groups are Jordan’s friends, but Amman has been reluctant to enter the Syrian civil war directly to stop them.
Instead, Jordan has tried to minimize the threat by developing closer relations with Russia in the hope that Moscow would use its leverage with the Iranians to at least keep the Shia groups from dominating southern Syria. In early July 2017, Russia and the United States helped to
broker a truce in southern Syria that would leave in place all forces in the civil war there—designed primarily to prevent Iran-backed forces like Hezbollah from moving south. This truce was reached in large part to allay the concerns of both Jordan and Israel, though the Israelis have criticized it for not going far enough to rein in Hezbollah.
Although Jordan is reportedly still supporting some moderate Sunni rebels in the southern Syrian city of Deraa near the Jordanian border, it now seems to countenance Assad’s forces
being in control of the border region so long as Hezbollah and other Shia forces are not part of this contingent. Hence, looking at the current array of forces in the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime (minus the Iran-backed Shia forces) may now be the least problematic for Jordan. Perhaps for this reason, King Abdullah is no longer calling for Assad to relinquish power.
From Israel’s perspective, the Syrian civil war has not only deepened Iran’s involvement in Syria, making Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah more battle-hardened and effective, but it has also brought instability to the areas adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Sunni extremists in that area, including Fath al-Sham fighters, have even attacked the UN peacekeepers who have separated Syrian and Israeli troops in that area for many years.
Israel’s response has been twofold: undertaking about 100 military airstrikes, since the civil war began, against various targets inside Syria (usually against Hezbollah and Syrian armaments destined for it as well as against Sunni extremists near the Golan Heights) and, like Jordan, pursuing diplomatic overtures to the Russians to persuade them to keep Iranian influence in Syria to a minimum. As for Assad’s fate, Netanyahu has not commented directly on it, although from his perspective it probably does not matter who rules Syria as long as the regime keeps Iran at a distance and does not allow Sunni extremists to cause trouble near the Golan Heights. For his part, Assad has not been willing or able to meet these demands, and so the Israelis will continue to hold him responsible for at least the Hezbollah part of the equation. In early September 2017, for example, Israel bombed a Syrian military site allegedly linked to chemical weapons and missiles bound for Hezbollah.
Both Playing the Russia Card
During his trip to Sochi, Russia, in late August 2017, Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Iran continues to threaten Israel’s destruction on a daily basis. It arms terrorist organizations and initiates terror itself.” He also reportedly told Putin about Israel’s “red lines”—that Israel will not tolerate an Iranian or Hezbollah presence on the border with the Golan Heights, a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, or “game-changing weapons or capabilities” transferred from Iran to Hezbollah.
It is not clear how Putin responded to these demands, but like Jordan, Israel might have an exaggerated sense of Russia’s influence on Iran. Currently, Russia and Iran are in a marriage of convenience—they both want the Assad regime to survive for their own reasons, but that does not mean Russia has the wherewithal to stop or limit Iran’s role in Syria. Moreover, even if Putin did have such influence over the Iranians, he may not want to exercise it because he may not want to anger Tehran at this point. Hence, the policy of both Jordan and Israel to have Russia play a game of interference with the Iranians seems a bit farfetched. Nonetheless, with so few viable options, it is likely that both Israel and Jordan will continue to implore the Russians to take their concerns into account.
Although there has been some confluence between Israel and Jordan regarding the Syria crisis given their related goals there, their bilateral relationship has been strained severely over the past several months. On July 23, an Israeli embassy security guard in Amman shot two Jordanians allegedly in self-defense. Jordanian authorities initially refused to release the guard to Israel, which cited diplomatic immunity, but they relented a day later after Netanyahu called King Abdullah, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency traveled to Amman, and US diplomats intervened in the case. When the security guard arrived in Israel, however, he was treated like a hero by Netanyahu, which provoked an angry response not only from ordinary Jordanian citizens but also from King Abdullah himself, who criticized the Israeli prime minister for his “provocative” behavior.
Tensions were already high between Amman and Tel Aviv just days prior to this incident because, in response to some cases of Palestinian violence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu had ordered security cameras and metal detectors to be placed at entrances to the Muslim al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem, considered the third holiest site in Islam. The initial order sparked several days of protests among Palestinians and further inflamed Jordanian public opinion, prompting Netanyahu to rescind the order after speaking with King Abdullah. Not only was this episode seen as an affront to the Palestinians (and Jordan’s population is 60 percent Palestinian) but to Muslims in general. For King Abdullah, it was especially sensitive as he retains the title of custodian of al-Haram al-Sharif. On August 7, in the wake of these incidents, he visited Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas but deliberately refrained from meeting with Netanyahu or any other Israeli official a few miles away.
Relations between Israel and Jordan are still frayed and not moving toward resolution. Jordan has insisted that it will not reopen the Israeli embassy in Amman (which was closed in the wake of the July 23 incident) until the Israeli security guard is brought back to Jordan to stand trial. It seems that national honor is at stake for both countries. The Israelis maintain that the guard acted properly and in self-defense, whereas the Jordanians insist that the Israelis need to abide by international law.
Implications for the United States
It behooves the United States to try to allay Jordanian and Israeli security concerns in southern Syria as much as possible. This means that US officials should continue to engage with the Russians to keep the July 2017 truce operable in this region. Although Netanyahu has criticized such accords as not doing enough to keep Iran-backed forces like Hezbollah away from the Golan, these types of cease-fires are better than the alternative: perpetual violence in the neighborhood that can only lead to more instability. As mentioned earlier, Russia may not be able to apply the requisite leverage on Iran to compel it to influence its allies to keep such truces in place.
It would also be in the US interest to try to aim for a political solution for the Syrian crisis as a whole, especially now that the fight against IS in Syria is nearing an end. This would enable the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan to go home and finally end their displacement. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has renewed the call for a Geneva conference to take place, but this is complicated by the fact that the Russians, Iranians, and Turks continue to have their own political talks on Syria in Astana, Kazakhstan and Assad seems determined to try to take back all of Syria. For a political process to succeed, Washington would have to bite the bullet and bring Tehran into the negotiations, given the Iranians’ prominent role in the conflict. Although this was done during the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration seems more interested in isolating Iran than engaging it. The longer the Syrian crisis continues, however, the greater the likelihood that Iran’s role in Syria will expand.
As for the troublesome Jordanian-Israeli bilateral relationship, US officials should use their good offices to mediate the dispute. Perhaps a face-saving mechanism can be found where the Israeli security guard can be tried in Israel with international and Jordanian jurists in attendance. Although Israel and Jordan are not likely to come to blows, it would help the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal if they were back on friendly terms.