Jordan must rethink its approach to reopening Syria border crossing

October 15, 2017

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.