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So far, the small kingdom of Jordan has sat on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis, experiencing the conflict mostly through the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have flowed across its northern border. But that may soon change. Over the past month, with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) moving perilously close to its border, Jordan has signaled its readiness to play a more active regional role, including building a humanitarian and military training zone in southern Syria, where it would assist Syrian rebels and unload its refugee population.
This plan could lead to disaster. The creation of a safe zone in Syria, which would be an unwelcome trespass on Syrian territory, may incite the Assad regime to retaliate against Jordan. It may also open a pathway into the kingdom for extremist groups.
This year’s June 10 festivities for Jordan’s Army Day, which commemorates the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, were highly symbolic and hinted at the kingdom’s new plan. During the celebrations, King Abdullah presented the Arab Army, the name for Jordan’s armed forces, with the Hashemite flag, which was carried during the revolt by members of the Hashemite clan, the direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. The inscription on the flag, which includes the Shahadatain (the Islamic testimonies that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is His messenger) as well as the bismillah (the first verse of Koran), emphasizes the leading historical role of the Hashemites in service of pan-Arab and Islamic causes.
The buffer zone might seem like a clever way to build a safety net and offload thousands of refugees, but it will actually undermine the kingdom’s security.
That might sound somewhat innocuous, but shortly after the Army Day ceremonies, Maher Abu Tair, a prominent Jordanian journalist wrote an article in a government-owned newspaper titled, “A New Arab Kingdom with Amman as its Capital.” He argued that Jordan should expand its kingdom to the Sunni parts of western Iraq and southern Syria as well as the West Bank. Abu Tair claimed that regional borders are fundamentally changing. To grapple with this new reality, Jordan needs to adjust its borders accordingly to ensure its own survival. Meanwhile, he says that the Sunni populations in neighboring countries would welcome Hashemite rule, especially after having lived under the authoritarian rule of their sectarian regimes.
It is unlikely, of course, that Jordan will extend its borders, but its foreign policy has certainly grown more daring. First is the training of Syrian rebels and the humanitarian zone. Jordan intends for this area, which would include the Daraa and Suwayda provinces, to help Syrian rebels launch offensives against the Assad regime in other parts of the country and also to protect the Syrian–Jordanian border against extremists. The Southern Front, a coalition of Syrian rebels who do not belong to the most radical groups (such as the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, or Ahrar al-Sham), will man the zone with the support of the kingdom. Last month, the Southern Front launched an operation dubbed Southern Storm to occupy Daraa City. While the operation has since stalled, it is still on the Southern Front’s agenda.
Any kind of safe zone on its borders...would offer safety in name only.
The buffer zone might seem like a clever way to build a safety net and offload thousands of refugees, but it will actually undermine the kingdom’s security. First, the zone will undoubtedly irk the Assad regime, perhaps enough to provoke an attack against Jordan. The Syrian regime has recently intensified its bombing of rebel groups in Daraa and it views control of the city as vital to its own survival. If Jordan gets entangled there, as it more actively supports and advises groups fighting in Daraa (possibly even sending Jordanians there), the Syrian regime may decide to attack. Although Syrian President Bashar al Assad probably does not want to add more enemies to his list, a safe zone so close to Damascus may be impossible for him to ignore.
Second, radical opposition groups are powerful in southern Syria, and Jordan could inadvertently entangle itself in their complicated politics. One of the major rebel groups operating in Daraa province is Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest), an umbrella organization that includes radical groups such as al-Nusra Front, a branch of al Qaeda, and Ahrar al-Sham, an ultraconservative rebel group. But in the south, extremist groups are not as powerful as elsewhere in Syria and an operations room based in Amman, known as the Military Operations Command, which channels weapons and cash to the Southern Front from Amman, has tried to stop the Southern Front from collaborating with Jaysh al-Fateh and other radical groups.
But as an umbrella group, the Southern Front is suffering from internal divisions that may push some of its factions to partner with Jaysh al-Fateh. If the Southern Front eventually conquers Daraa, Jaysh al-Fateh may end up setting up camp in the safe zone. The presence of Jaysh al-Fateh in Daraa will further infuriate Syria, which has accused Jordan of supporting terrorist groups. More importantly, Jordan would come under U.S. pressure to prevent extremists from operating in the zone. Yet, if Jordan actively tries to prevent these groups from using Jordan’s training zone as their staging ground, whether by attacking them directly or otherwise, they may decide to retaliate against the kingdom.
Finally, a safe zone could risk dragging Jordan directly into the Syrian conflict. To be sure, occasional shelling across the borders has resulted in civilian casualties, but Jordan’s borders have remained relatively safe throughout the civil war. However, the safe zone may be too attractive a target for radical groups such as the Islamic State and Jaysh al-Fateh, forcing Jordan to send its own ground troops into southern Syria. If so, Jordan’s participation in the civil war would severely undermine the stability of the kingdom.
Thus far, the Jordanian leadership has admirably maintained the security and stability of its country despite the deteriorating security situations in Iraq and Syria. But with the ongoing offensive in Daraa, Jordan will face increasing risks, which is why it should not take policy chances. There are two ways that the United States could help Jordan avoid getting involved in Syria. It could work with Russia and Iran to compel Assad to agree to a ceasefire in the south. This would reduce the intensity of the conflict near the Jordanian borders and would reduce the need for the kingdom to get involved in the crisis. Washington could also support Jordan by contributing more funds to aid Syrian refugees and encouraging the international community to follow suit. This would lessen the pressure on Jordan to look for alternatives to accommodate the refugees. These two options would allow Jordan to secure its borders without having to set up any kind of safe zone on its borders, which would offer safety in name only.