Jordan must rethink its approach to reopening Syria border crossing
Authorities in Amman are pressuring southern Syria rebels to hand over control of the major border crossing between Syria and Jordan, which they captured in April 2015, to the Damascus regime. Since Russia and the United States brokered a “de-escalation zone” agreement for south-western Syria, President Bashar Assad’s administration has increasingly pushed for the reopening of the Nasib Border Crossing with Jordan.
Along with trade perks, the Assad regime would receive a boost of legitimacy if it came to control the border crossing, as Jordan and others seem to seek better relations with a re-emerging regime in Damascus. However, while Jordan may also benefit economically from the reopening of the crossing, which used to be a major trade transit route between Gulf countries and Turkey, it risks destabilising its northern frontier.
Over the last five years, Amman has been able to unobtrusively maintain a relative semblance of security and stability along its 375km border with Syria but the recent push by authorities in Amman to reopen the Nasib Border Crossing in cooperation with the Assad regime hints at a short-sighted approach that would jeopardise the stability of a strategic region in Syria.
Until this point, nationalist-orientated rebels in southern Syria have resisted pressure. Opposition forces in the south reject the regime control of the border crossing for two main reasons: They view it to be a mean that aims at rehabilitating an illegitimate regime in Damascus and they fear losing local public support, albeit they could stand to profit from a portion of the customs fees if they end up agreeing to regime and Jordanian proposals.
There were reports that Jordan is firm about reopening the crossing point, whether or not the rebels agree. In this respect, Jordan seems to misperceive the Assad regime’s long-term objectives for the region and the history of southern Syria’s rebellion and population, who was first to ignite the uprising in 2011.
Steady backing from Russia and Iran to the Assad regime made a regime change scenario in Syria no longer conceivable. The Assad regime’s overall goal, however, is to eventually control all of Syria. While this appears to contradict realities of the conflict, regime actions across Syria can only suggest such a mentality.
Assad’s regime is no longer that of pre-2011, however. His forces are almost entirely dependent on foreign fighters and lack indigenous Syrian manpower. Assad does not view de-escalation agreements as means for stability and de-confliction to pave a way to meaningful peace talks but rather as reconciliation agreements meant to eventually lead rebels to submit to his rule.
If the Syrian regime is to take control of the south again, the border region would face instability given the geostrategic importance of the area to Iran and its sectarian proxies. Amman fears the possibility of sectarian tensions over its northern border, which would put Jordan’s national security interests and those of its allies — Gulf countries, the United States and Israel — in substantial vulnerability.
Increasing Assad’s presence in the south, even if only in the border crossing area, would feed into the narrative of extremists and increase their recruitment potential among the local population, which largely opposes the regime.
Amman must acknowledge that stability in southern Syria can only be achieved with an opposition, nationalist-oriented force composed of fighters from the region itself, thus mirroring the aspirations and demographic composition of the south-western population.
While jihadist forces do exist in southern Syria, including an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate, they are outweighed by nationalist-oriented rebels who are indigenous to the region.
Among opposition forces in Syria, rebels in Daraa are the most moderate. The Southern Front coalition, for instance, includes approximately 40 Free Syrian Army-linked factions that have proved to be reliable for the region’s security and flexible to work with regional powers. Unlike other rebel groups, the Southern Front operates, to a large extent, realistically and holds no direct interest in attacking regime-held Damascus.
Given the level of complexity, the conflict has reached and the territorial disintegration among regions across Syria, rebels in the south may want to become a force localised for the security of opposition-held areas — a force that would conduct operations against extremist groups and secure real long-term stability and de-confliction.
Amman must not appease the Southern Front nor work against its agenda. Instead, the kingdom, with support from regional powers and the United States, could empower and build an effective partnership with the Southern Front, which could serve as a model of an acceptable and nationalist-oriented security force essential for the future of Syria and stability in its south. The Southern Front can prioritise countering jihadists and preserving stability, as it shares Jordan’s view that the war in Syria can only be concluded with a political settlement.
For the sake of long-term stability, Jordan must clearly pronounce its opposition to any expansion of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-funded and -mobilised forces along its northern border and demand the Russians to exert any influence they bear on their allies in Syria, particularly Hezbollah and the Iranians. The de-escalation zone agreement would show success only when extremists on all sides are being targeted and when local-led stability efforts are enabled.
Security challenges to Jordan from next door are real. Amman must not prioritise economic benefits over border security. Jordan must also not be fooled by recent regime advances and think that the regime is winning the war. Centralised Syria is no longer possible. If Jordan looks to secure its northern border for the long run and counter extremists in southern Syria, Amman must prioritise restoring its partnership with local, nationalist-oriented rebels.