Jordan’s increased involvement in Syria
Jordan, one of the few remaining stable countries in the Middle East, is likely to increase its military involvement in neighbouring Syria as the war flares closer to its northern border.
The Jordanian national security equation is directly connected to the security of its borders with war-torn Syria and Iraq.
Jordan has been undertaking a minor role in the Syrian conflict, one that has enabled Amman to maintain a semblance of security and stability along its 375km border with Syria. However, as the international struggle for influence in the region mounts, it seems that the Jordanian strategy is no longer applicable.
Recent military developments in southern Syria are particularly alarming for Amman’s national security.
First, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is making worrying advances in south-eastern Syria, reaching towards al-Tanf garrison near the Jordanian and Iraqi triangle border point, where US and British special forces are stationed alongside a tribal rebel force countering the Islamic State (ISIS) in Deir ez-Zor governorate.
This development prompted the United States to take precautions, including targeting Assad troops as they neared the area. These concerns are amplified given the apparent involvement of Iranian-funded, sectarian militias among the regime’s crowds.
Second, the Assad regime, backed by Iranian and Hezbollah forces, has been conducting a simultaneous campaign against nationalist-oriented rebels in Daraa governorate in southern Syria. The level of participation by Iranian-backed forces in this campaign is unprecedented and is combined with increasing rhetoric against Amman by the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
Third, the ISIS-affiliate Khalid Ibn al-Walid Brigade in the Yarmouk Basin presents a challenge to Jordan, as the Salafi jihadist force has been attacking multiple points along the border, killing border guards and displaced civilians.
There is a high likelihood that Sunni extremist activities in the south would intensify following the ISIS defeat in Raqqa and retreat south. This defeat also rings alarms for Jordan at home, where the country is facing an internal struggle with Islamist extremists.
These mounting challenges to Jordan’s security are likely to push the kingdom to increase its involvement in Syria’s crisis to protect its interests. Jordan’s security objectives are associated with its ability to project influence among rebels in southern Syria and with ensuring there are no Sunni extremists nor Iran-backed Shia militants in this region.
While Jordanian authorities do not seem to have issues with Assad forces being in control of the border region, they are concerned about Hezbollah and other Shia militias, whose presence in southern Syria could destabilise the area. Such a presence would pose a direct threat to the national security of two of the United States’ most valuable allies in the Middle East: Jordan and Israel.
While the de-escalation zones agreement reached in May between Russia, Iran and Turkey has designated an area for southern Syria, the situation in the border region has seen a remarkable escalation. That was essentially caused by the Iranians, who seem to view the southern and south-eastern sections of Syria as strategically significant for their agenda (linking Tehran with the Mediterranean via a passage through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon).
This escalation in an area that is designed for a ceasefire is perhaps related to the fact that the United States was not part of the initial deal.
Amman is exhausting all diplomatic channels with Russia with the aim of reaching an agreement that could prevent the advances of Iranian-linked militias further south. The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States and Russia are having secret talks in Jordan aimed at setting up a de-confliction zone for southern Syria.
The Amman factor in connecting the Russians and the Americans is not only about having the two superpowers reach a consensus on how things should go in the troubled region but also about the security of northern Jordan. Amman has a pragmatic relationship with Moscow; they have worked together on issues related to Syria. Amman is also a staunch ally of the United States. This unique position could allow Jordan to facilitate productive discussions between Washington and Moscow, especially considering the apparent willingness to cooperate from both sides.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to maintain strategic relations with the Jordanians and the Israelis, thus furthering cooperation with the Americans, it remains unclear whether Moscow can pressure the Iranians into changing their course of action in the south. In many instances, Russia failed to restrain Assad forces from breaching ceasefire agreements as well as influence Iranian behaviour in Syria.
It remains uncertain exactly what Moscow’s position is on Iran projecting influence in the south and south-eastern regions. While it is not in Russia’s interest per se that Iran is advancing in such a manner, having a British-US-Jordanian build-up in the Syrian desert would probably jeopardise Putin’s interests in Syria.
Either way, Amman must be hard-headed and proactive. Though the kingdom may not have the capability to make a military incursion into Syria, like that made by Turkey in the north, Jordan has to reinforce and strengthen its military positions on the border.
At the same time, Amman must mobilise Western allies — notably the United States and Britain — to prepare for the worst-case scenario, while considering steps towards rallying regional partners to establish the military alliance (an Arab NATO) to counter Sunni extremism and Iranian expansionist influence, which was discussed in Saudi Arabia during US President Donald Trump’s visit.
Jordan is ultimately being forced to increase involvement in Syria. Although the war next door is complex and multi-layered, Amman must be equipped to face these developing challenges.
Showing strength and readiness are the kingdom’s best propositions, while diplomacy may not be as efficient. Showing strength also involves increasing weapons support for the indigenous, nationalist-oriented rebels who can curb progress in Daraa and the Yarmouk Basin.