Jordan fears that the eight months of stability on its northern border with Syria, which started with the US-Russian agreement in July 2017, could come to an end. There are four worst-case scenarios for Amman moving forward as critical challenges continue to emerge in southwestern Syria. Furthermore, Jordan’s options to limit the damage of these scenarios might gradually narrow, especially now with President Donald Trump’s floating the idea of an American withdrawal from Syria.
Scenario 1: Collapse of the US-Russian Ceasefire
The US-Russia agreement in southwestern Syria, brokered by Amman last July, appears to be no longer valid. On March 12, the Syrian military launched airstrikes on the Daraa province, the first violation of the US-Russian ceasefire agreement, which could potentially return southwestern Syria to the pre-July 2017 status quo.
Civilians began to flee these areas as the Russian military used scare tactics based on the Eastern Ghouta model of removing fighters and civilians to other parts of the country. The spokesperson of the Humaymim Air Base, Alexander Ivanov, warned on March 11 that “we seek, after securing the perimeters of the capital Damascus, to eliminate terrorists present in the southern part of the country.”1 The US State Department held an urgent meeting for the Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC), which has been inactive since late last year. The MOC has previously played a crucial role in providing financial, military, and intelligence support for the Free Syrian Army in the southern front.
Also on March 11, pro-opposition news websites speculated that Washington might reactivate the MOC and is planning a wide-ranging military campaign in southwestern Syria. However, these reports appear to be wishful thinking rather than actual policy. Jordan’s state minister for media affairs, Mohammad Momani, denied these reports2 on March 26 and reiterated that Amman’s priority is to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
There are no indications that the United States plans to reopen the supply line of the southern front. Moreover, the effectiveness of the armed opposition groups has gradually waned since last summer, as they initially dismissed US requests to abide by the ceasefire agreement and to work with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in southeastern Syria. Furthermore, the Pentagon recently denied any US involvement, even in “monitoring de-escalation zones,” and reiterated the priority of defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS) in southeastern Syria. It is also not clear if the Amman-based US-Russian center to monitor the ceasefire in southwestern Syria remains active.
So far, Washington has shown restraint in dealing with the Russian challenge—and, often, provocation. General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee last month that Russia is “both arsonist and fireman” in Syria. So far, Russia is not authorizing any movement in the Jordanian buffer zone that includes the US-controlled al-Tanf military base.
However, the unprecedented tensions between Washington and Moscow are not helping to bridge their widening divide in Syria. Most importantly, the collapse of the US-Russian coordination has the potential to immobilize Jordan’s ability to navigate the Syrian conflict.
Scenario 2: Border Clashes between Regime and Opposition
Jordanian authorities are concerned about potential border clashes between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is gradually advancing along the Damascus-Daraa Highway and, sooner or later, might confront the armed opposition groups that currently control the Nasib border crossing. Part of the US-Russian ceasefire agreement was for the armed opposition to transfer the Nasib crossing to the Syrian regime; however, Amman failed to persuade the Syrian opposition to give up this key entry point.
Across the Daraa province, the Syrian regime and the armed opposition are deployed in proximity around three crossings: Khirbet Ghazaleh and Dael in the central countryside, and Kafr Shams in the northern countryside. The Syrian regime has imposed heavy customs taxes on all goods passing through these crossings. Most recently, political tensions grew3 over whether United Nations assistance to southern Syria should go through the Jordanian border or be administered by relief organizations through Syrian regime-controlled areas. The Syrian opposition maintains that UN assistance to southern Syria should go through the al-Ramtha crossing with Jordan.
Meanwhile, the opposition groups in Daraa have been trying to build their organizational capacity and announced the formation of a “revolutionary council” last November. This “Council of Free Daraa Province” has already prepared an emergency plan,4 in case the regime launches an attack; its aim is to deal with the potential displacement of civilians. However, the armed opposition in the southern front lacks the discipline, necessary weapons, and foreign support to lead an effective battle against the Syrian regime and its allies. Indeed, the armed opposition is surrounded by Israel, IS, and the Syrian regime; therefore, Jordan is the only gateway to receive support. However, Amman has been scaling back its support to minimum levels, even for medical treatment. Jordanian troops will most probably stay idle and avoid getting entangled in confrontations between the regime and the opposition in southwestern Syria.
Scenario 3: Regional Confrontation between Israel and Iran
If a regional war broke out between Iran and Israel in the Quneitra province, Jordan will most probably further strengthen its defensive posture to avoid any spillover. However, Amman’s regional alliances have been fluid in recent months.
Jordan was part of a timid rapprochement with Iran last year, most notably after the White House’s decision last December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. US diplomatic engagement and the visit of Vice President Mike Pence managed to curb Amman’s regional realignment. Soon after Pence’s trip, Jordan’s King Abdullah criticized Iran for meddling in the region and noted that “the Saudi policy is to say: the red lines are here”—which strained once again the bilateral relations between Amman and Tehran.
Meanwhile, Israel’s apology for the death of two Jordanians at the Israeli embassy in Amman paved the way for normalizing the two countries’ bilateral relations after months of diplomatic tensions. This development might realign Israeli and Jordanian interests in Syria after they had drifted apart since last July, when the two did not see eye to eye on the US-Russian ceasefire agreement.
Furthermore, as Turkey launched its military campaign in northwestern Syria and Trump announced his decision on Jerusalem, Amman and Ankara got close to each other. While they have similar objectives in Syria, this rapprochement can do little to help Jordanian interests in Syria, but it shows that Amman is strengthening its alliance with Russia and Turkey as it remains cautious of Iranian intentions.
Indeed, there has been ambiguity surrounding Iran’s presence near the Jordanian border. Hezbollah announced on March 19 that Ali Tarhini, one of its commanders in charge of the combat engineering unit, was killed in southwestern Syria in an attack unofficially claimed by the Syrian opposition. While Hezbollah blamed5 Israeli agents among the radical groups, Israel did not comment on the attack.
The Syrian regime and its allies have now reached the 1974 ceasefire line near the Lebanese-Syrian border. Unless there are Russian guarantees about Iranian presence near the occupied Golan Heights, Israel’s silence might mean a state of alert to target Iranian proxies if a direct threat emerges. On March 15, the Israeli army conducted an exercise that simulated a multi-front war in which Russia intervened to prevent Israel from attacking Syria, in a clear indication that Israel is concerned about Russia restraining Israel’s operations inside Syria.
Scenario 4: Reemergence of IS on Jordan’s Border
The fourth and last dimension of the Syrian conflict’s impact on Jordan is the cross-border attacks and activities of terrorist groups. After all, the IS killing of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh in February 2015 was a turning point in shaping Jordan’s role in the Syrian conflict.
According to official estimates,6 1,300 Jordanians were recruited by radical groups in Syria and Iraq, of which 400 were killed, 300 returned home, and 600 remain active. Moreover, since 2014, over 675 individuals were referred to the courts for joining or promoting terrorist groups. IS still has the capacity to launch cross-border incursions or attacks through sleeper cells and “lone wolves” operating inside the kingdom. On March 25, Jordanian authorities arrested 15 members of a cell tied to IS, accusing them of plotting to target police stations and the intelligence bureau in the city of Ruseifa near Amman.
Hence, Jordan does not want to see IS emerge again as a direct threat on its border. The Khaled bin Walid Brigade, which pledges allegiance to IS, might exploit the chaos on the Syrian-Jordanian border to launch further attacks. The terrorist group already controls the strategic Yarmouk basin in the southwestern countryside of Daraa, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, in a terrain that makes it difficult for either the opposition or the regime to reclaim the area. Just last week, the Free Syrian Army resisted IS attempts7 to advance toward the Jordanian border from the Yarmouk basin.
Among the many challenges on its northern border, the Rukban area might be the most daunting one for Jordan. This area is located in a desert in the Mafraq province near the Iraqi-Syrian border and around 290 kilometers from Amman. In 2016, it witnessed the establishment of a camp in the demilitarized zone between the two countries. Syrian refugees fled to this camp, which now has an estimated population of more than 85,000. It is currently run by the Jordanian-backed “Army of Free Tribes”; however, IS also has presence in the camp. On March 25, the Jordanian Court of Cassation upheld a ruling sentencing IS member Najim Omour for plotting the June 2016 car bomb attack on an army post near Rukban camp. Jordan sealed off its border with Syria since this attack.
Jordan has been forcefully arguing that Rukban camp is an internal Syrian issue, not a Jordanian one, hence the Syrians residing in it are internally displaced and not refugees. This eases international pressure on Amman to act and shift the blame to the Syrian regime, which is now technically responsible for delivering aid to the camp. Indeed, Jordan considered UN Security Council Resolution 2401, passed last month, as a victory for its diplomatic effort since the text stipulated the need to ensure humanitarian assistance to Rukban “from inside” Syria. Russia, meanwhile, is shifting the blame to the United States since Rukban is in the buffer zone where the US-controlled military base in al-Tanf is located. On March 1, Russia’s ambassador to Jordan, Bolotin Boris Fedorovich, described the US presence8 in this area as “an occupation,” saying that the Syrian regime should retake control of it.
If the United States is not coordinating with Russia on Rukban camp, or if the Syrian regime decides to escalate the situation, the camp might once again constitute a direct threat to Jordanian authorities. This might compel Amman once again to repeat its direct involvement in the camp.
Amman’s Options Moving Forward
Jordan has long followed a policy of holding the stick from the middle in the Syrian conflict, most notably since the US-Russian ceasefire agreement of July 2017. Amman withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2013 but did not sever diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime. Moscow’s mediation last year led to lowering the tensions between Jordanian authorities and the Assad government. Meanwhile, Jordan continues to provide support to the “Army of Free Tribes” that operates in Daraa, Quneitra, and parts of Suwayda provinces. Amman took measures to stop the flow of weapons and fighters into Syria from its border; Jordan also wants the Syrian refugees in the kingdom to ultimately return home. The cost of the Syrian conflict on the Jordanian economy is taking a toll after seven years of war.
As the United States is apparently relinquishing its influence in southwestern Syria and Trump is signaling plans to withdraw from Syria “very soon”, Jordan will have no option other than to strengthen coordination with Moscow. The buffer zone on the Jordanian-Iraqi border, where the US base in al-Tanf is located, could become volatile. This worst-case scenario includes additional Syrian refugees stranded on the border as well as potential IS attacks, which would increase stress on both US and Jordanian forces near al-Tanf.
The expectation moving forward is that the Syrian regime might move its troops from Eastern Ghouta near Damascus to the southwest, paving the way to retake the Daraa province. On March 26, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi affirmed that the kingdom “will continue to take all necessary steps to protect its national interests and security from the repercussions of any developments in the Syrian crisis.” Washington would be wise to articulate a clear position regarding developments in the southwest as well as its withdrawal plans from Syria so that concerned players in this critical area can act accordingly. As confrontations are winding down in northwestern Syria, the southwest could be the next phase of the continuing Syrian turmoil.