By Fares Nimry
Jordan’s Syrian policy has been one of oscillation and adaptability. On the eve of the Syrian uprising in November 2011, the Jordanian Monarch, King Abdullah II, became the first Arab leader to openly call for President Bashar Al-Assad’s resignation. Ten years later, the two leaders held their first official telephone conversation since the breakdown in relations, and the Jordanian Foreign Minister made his first public visit to Damascus since the impetus of the Syrian crisis in March 2023. A combination of economic and geopolitical factors have created an environment conducive to a detenté, or rapprochement, between Damascus and Amman. Nonetheless, this process is likely to remain stunted by the proliferation of cross-border smuggling and Jordan’s uneasiness vis-à-vis Iran’s presence in southern Syria.
Jordan is not the sole country in the region seeking to re-engage with the Assad regime after initially isolating it. From the ongoing normalisation process between Turkish and Syrian security chiefs, the quiet resumption of trade between Syria and Saudi Arabia in January 2023, and Foreign Minister Mekdad’s April 2023 visit to Jeddah, regional governments have recognised that Assad weathered the storm. Adding to this, Washington’s foreign policy agenda has, according to many, deprioritized Syria, partly due to the conventional defeat of Da’esh and the failure of opposition forces to maintain an enduring front against the regime. These factors, in combination with the static nature of the conflict, as well as the entrenchment of Iranian and Turkish spheres of influence in Syria, therefore lent themselves to the project of normalization and efforts to ‘re-legitimize’ the Syrian government.
In the context of trade and commercial ties, Syria has often been described as a “lung” for Jordanian commerce and industry. Likewise, Jordan’s population and consumer markets, especially in the northern cities of Irbid and Ar-Ramtha, have been breathing life into Syria’s economy. For Amman, reconciliation is aimed at relieving Jordan’s economic contraction imposed by the wartime loss of Syrian trade and complimenting intra-Arab agreements supplying gas and electricity to crisis-stricken Lebanon via Syria. On the other hand, Damascus maintains an interest in utilising Jordan as a trading outlet to bypass international sanctions and regain international acceptance and legitimacy through public cooperation with Amman.
Reality has proven more complex. The reopening of the Nassib-Jaber border crossing, while an important symbolic gesture, has generally yielded underwhelming economic benefits. Formal trade between Syria and Jordan totalled 94 million USD in 2020, a mere 15 percent of pre-war volumes. Indeed, this will in-all-likelihood remain unchanged until Syria emerges from its economic malaise.
Importantly, the two governments will likely need to face the ongoing challenge of illicit cross-border trade. Informal profits from illicit Captagon pill smuggling from Syria have increased exponentially, and Jordan has emerged as a destination and a transit hub for this “poor man’s cocaine.” Within Jordan itself, Captagon consumption has been described as an ‘epidemic,’ largely by the high rate of unemployment (totalling 25 percent in 2021), particularly amongst youth. This creates a naturally welcoming market and ties the matter inexorably to the issue of internal social stability. The key problem is that Syrian officials, despite explicit Jordanian concerns, have demonstrated inertia in tackling the matter, much to the ire of policymaking and security circles in Amman. Here, the Syrian regime’s economic interests contravene the Hashemite Kingdom’s security needs.
The regime, economically gutted and isolated by twelve years of civil war and international sanctions, has committed itself to the illicit narcotics trade as an invaluable stream of revenue, totalling 30 billion USD in 2021, more than thirty-five times that of Syria’s formal export economy. This symbiosis between Captagon and the very core of the leadership is apparent since its internal production and distribution are controlled and overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian army, an elite formation commanded by the President’s younger brother Maher. Hence, it is implausible to believe that Damascus can be recruited as a serious partner to quash Captagon smuggling. These conditions are likely to persist, especially as the narcotics trade becomes increasingly intertwined with the financial interests of Syria’s ascendant war-time business elite and Iranian-sponsored militias, upon which the continuity of Assad’s rule depends.
Countering Iran’s influence in southern Syria, indeed over the entirety of Syria, remains another prevailing motivation behind Jordan’s overtures. Amman’s efforts in accomplishing this, however, have yet again demonstrated the complexities hindering full Jordanian-Syrian re-engagement. After initially supporting the opposition’s ‘southern front’ against the Syrian government, Amman welcomed the regime’s 2018 victories against these forces as a means to restore stability to its northern border and thus remove the casus belli for Iran and Hezbollah to operate within the area. This presumption backfired. While the other major pro-regime international actor in the conflict, Russia, previously pledged to keep Iranian militias at a distance from the Golan Heights and Jordanian border, this has failed to halt Iran’s militarization of the region.
Moreover, a potential localised power vacuum spurred by Russian retreat given its aggression against Ukraine would likely be capitalised by Tehran, eager to entrench its ‘land bridge’ to Lebanon; concerns which King Abdullah II has directly highlighted. It is against this backdrop that Jordanian policymakers will need to reckon with the increasing enmeshing of Syria’s institutions with Iran, a trend perhaps best represented by the integration of up to 53,000 Iranian-backed foreign volunteers who have left their IRGC uniforms and fused into regular Syrian army formations. The challenge remains that in its overtures to Damascus, Arab governments may embrace a regime that has become so interwoven with Tehran since 2011, while they maintain no framework to effectively extricate one from the other.
While Syrian-Jordanian rapprochement may crystallise along ‘jointly-agreeable’ commercial initiatives and rhetorical statements, the relationship remains one of low trust and will be stunted by overriding security and foreign policy concerns. What is certain, is that both sides will continue their strategic game of detenté, always carefully balancing their internal interests with the perceived benefits of bilateral reconciliation.