Jordan vets Syrian groups to negotiate with Assad
AMMAN - Jordan is drawing up a list of “terrorist” and “moderate” groups operating in Syria ahead of negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the regime of President Bashar Assad on the future of the war-stricken country.
Jordan was entrusted with the task during a mid-November meeting that included the United States, the United Nations and Russia. Before that process took off, Saudi Arabia arranged for a three-day gathering in Riyadh of Syrian opposition groups it supports.
The Riyadh meeting imposed a new reality: The Saudi-hosted groups must be recognised as part of the “moderate opposition” that will negotiate a final settlement to the Syrian civil war.
Initially, Amman remained silent on the Saudi moves to avoid angering its largest Arab bankroller, which has pumped billions of dollars to Amman over the years to keep Jordan’s moribund economy afloat. That drew widespread speculation that efforts were not coordinated between the two countries.
However, a senior government official insisted that Jordan had taken the nudge on all the moves from Saudi Arabia, which announced on December 14th the formation of an alliance of Muslim nations to fight terrorism.
“The Saudi meeting is part and parcel of a unified effort to end the war in Syria,” the official told The Arab Weekly, insisting on anonymity, citing the sensitivity of his remarks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, said they exchanged views on “moderate” and “terrorist” groups operating in Syria.
Kerry said he was specifically concerned about the safety of the moderates, who were facing constant Russian air strikes in Syria.
Jordan, which hosts 1.4 million Syrian refugees, has maintained close contact with “moderate” Syrian rebels, hoping they may offer an alternative to Assad’s regime. The so-called moderates, known as the Southern Front, include ex-Syrian Army officers and Free Syrian Army recruits from tribal backgrounds from southern Syria regions.
Fayez Dwairi, a strategic analyst and retired senior military officer, said that due to Jordan’s national security interests in southern Syria, “I’m sure the kingdom would like to maintain the status quo there for as long as possible.”
There are more than 800 armed groups operating in Syria and 40% of those may be considered “moderate”, another Jordanian government official involved in the screening process said, insisting on anonymity because he is not allowed to make press statements.
Jordan hopes the “moderates” will form a buffer if and when Assad’s regime in Damascus crumbles, or if Assad decides to abandon the presidency and head to a safe haven on the eastern Mediterranean in Syria’s Latakia. The area is home to Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Saudi Arabia, which is of the rival Sunni sect, has accused Assad of being an Iranian vassal to promote Tehran’s brand of Shia Islam in a region long dominated by Sunni governments. It wants Assad to leave office before a political process starts.
However, in meetings in the past two months in Vienna, representatives from the United Nations, the European Union and 17 countries — including Saudi Arabia — set in motion a plan for a possible solution to end the civil war in Syria, which envisages the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militants.
The diplomats agreed in Vienna on October 30th to a timetable that would in six months see a transitional government in Syria, which would have elections within 18 months.
At the Riyadh meeting, which wrapped up December 11th, more than 100 members of Syria’s opposition groups agreed to work together to prepare for talks with Assad’s government.
Jordan has proceeded with drafting the required lists on the Syrian opposition groups.
The Jordanian official involved in the screening process cautioned that “clear criteria must be used to define a terror group and then be applied to all parties in the conflict. Deciding which of these groups is terrorist in nature is not going to be an easy task.”
Dawiri says Jordan should reject this task, although it is capable of doing it.
“Time isn’t ripe for Jordan to create enemies in a troubled region and amid a rise of terror groups,” he said.