Amman must bolster ties with Syrian rebels
Jordan made no mistake when it confirmed that Syrian President Bashar Assad was not invited to attend the Arab League summit scheduled for March 23rd-29th in Amman despite Iraqi and Russian pressure to include Damascus.
Nevertheless, Jordan’s position and recent comments on the war next door raise concerns among the Syrian opposition, particularly when it comes to the kingdom’s relationship with rebels in the southern governorate of Daraa and Amman’s role in countering the Islamic State (ISIS) presence in the border region.
Over the course of the war in Syria, Amman has pursued a strategy of maintaining diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, while at the same time playing a moderate role in supporting nationalist-oriented rebels in southern Syria, who are being aided by Western and Gulf powers.
Jordan’s ambiguous stance has been one of the forces driving the extremists’ narrative against Western-backed rebels in southern Syria. This has weakened their standing among the wider populace and other forces in the area. To a certain extent, this has led to some support for al-Qaeda-linked groups and most recently Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Waleed (JKBW), an ISIS-affiliate in control of a small area in the Yarmouk Valley bordering the Golan Heights and Jordan.
Since its establishment in May 2016, the Salafi jihadist force has been presenting a challenge to the security of the Jordan-Syria border. Over the past few months, ISIS and its affiliates have attacked multiple points on the 375km border with Jordan, resulting in the death of border guards as well as displacement of Syrian civilians.
Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Jordanian Army, said on BBC Arabic that an “imminent threat” was posed by JKBW along the border. He claimed the group had been spotted in possession of anti-aircraft weapons and armoured vehicles capable of attacking Jordanian front lines only 1km away.
The ISIS-affiliate in southern Syria is outside the US-led coalition’s operational range and Jordan has neither the interest nor capability to launch a military incursion similar to Turkey’s in northern Syria. This leaves the job of tackling the terrorist group to Syrian rebels. Nationalist-oriented forces from the Free Syrian Army, who comprise most rebel forces in southern Syria, have been targeting JKBW positions.
With the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, starting to re-engage on the front lines near Daraa, proactive measures for securing stability on the southern front are needed and it is here that Jordan can play a crucial role.
The Jordanian leadership must be aware that betting on the Assad regime to secure the southern front, even if the latter captured it from rebels, is a losing proposition. In its current form, the Assad regime is the worst partner the kingdom could possibly rely upon.
First, the Assad regime lacks the indigenous Syrian manpower needed to hold such land. This was clearly demonstrated in the battles to capture Palmyra and nearby oil and gas fields. If one thing can be predicted after six years of war in Syria it is that the Assad regime is incapable of holding captured territory.
Second, the region south and west of Damascus has been shown to be of geostrategic importance to Iran and its proxy sectarian force, Hezbollah. There was a noticeable increase in Hezbollah’s involvement in recent battles between rebels and regime forces in northern Daraa. Having Iranian-funded militants nearing its borders would in no way serve Amman’s interests nor those of its regional and international allies, particularly the Gulf states, the United States and Israel.
Last, the prospect of the Assad regime capturing Daraa, which was the site of the spark that ignited the Syrian revolution, would feed into the narrative of extremists in the area and increase their recruitment potential among the local population. Given the apparent sectarian nature of Assad’s troops and the level of foreign involvement, the regime would ultimately be defeated in Daraa and Quneitra governorates due to its demographic disadvantage, thus likely strengthening the standing of extremists.
If Jordan is serious about effectively eliminating ISIS from the border, its army must bolster its relations with nationalist rebels in Daraa. This does not require Jordan to cut diplomatic relations with the Assad regime nor to show direct hostility. It only requires Amman to pronounce a robust, clear strategy that considers the FSA, whose forces come from the local population of Daraa and Quneitra, the only viable partner in Amman’s anti-terrorism operations.
This would embolden opposition forces to continue defending their territory and countering ISIS. Jordan must also continue its efforts to work with tribes in south-eastern Syria who are solely combating ISIS near Deir ez-Zor and the Iraq-Syria- Jordan triangle point border.
The FSA in southern Syria understands that the conflict will not end by military means and shares Jordan’s vision in seeking a political settlement. Thus, Jordan is assured — and assures Russia — that rebels in the south have no interest in targeting regime-held Damascus nor do they have the capability to conduct such operations.
Amman must publicly rule out the option of cooperation with the Assad regime and work diplomatically with Russia to halt the regime’s push towards the south. To secure the border region and counter terrorism in the long run, Jordan has to adapt a strategy by which it can foster an honest and effective partnership with the nationalist rebels of southern Syria.