Russia’s Missing Peacemakers
Why the Country’s Elites Are Struggling to Break With Putin
With the moderate armed opposition close to collapse in Syria’s northwest, the Southern Front has emerged as a more alluring venue for advocates of regime change. The appeal is understandable. The Assad regime is practicing economy of force in Syria’s south, and unlike in the northwest, operations there do not need to contend with significant Russian activity or risk running afoul of Turkish interests. Best of all, anti-regime military operations can be supported from Jordanian bases. And Jordan is a resolute U.S. ally.
Whether such cooperation with the United States is in Jordan’s interest is open to question. Jordanians themselves are clearly wondering, and it behooves those who back intensified operations in southern Syria—the United States and, in particular, its Gulf allies—to ask it, too. Jordan’s record when torn between the demands of its patrons, its external security, and domestic politics has generally reflected flexibility and pragmatism. Dating back to its covert contacts with Israel in the 1940s, Jordan has remained pragmatic even as ideologies and revolutions have come and gone. Relatively poor and militarily weak, Jordan cannot afford to let ideology or dreams of regional supremacy drive its foreign policy. Survival is already an ambitious enough objective.
Jordan’s pragmatism is hard-won, shaped by a history of devil’s choices. In 1948, King Abdullah I recognized the impending failure of Arab efforts to expunge the fledgling Jewish state and decided he would do better by securing Jordan’s claims to Arab parts of mandatory Palestine through collusion with Israel. His grandson, King Hussein, continued secret contact with Israel and, supported by the United States, avoided engagement in the 1967 Six Day War until his hand was forced by the anti-monarchical ferment of Arab nationalism. The ensuing catastrophe, including the loss of the West Bank and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, underscored for Hussein the importance of avoiding foreign policy adventurism and of courting the patronage of great powers, especially the United States. Hussein’s pragmatism paid off during the 1970 Black September conflict, when invading Syrian forces retreated from Jordanian territory after Hussein indirectly appealed to Israel for military intervention.
Jordan’s policy toward Iraq echoed this cycle of calculation and correction. In the lead up to the 1991 Gulf War, Jordan was one of the only Arab nations to side with Saddam Hussein against the U.S.-led coalition. The rise of hawkish Likud governments in Israel bent on promoting Jordan as a future homeland for all Palestinians had caused Jordan to look east for another regional partner, and Saddam had been generous in supporting Jordanian infrastructure development and trade. Hussein found himself in a no-win situation. He was unable to publicly cross Saddam but knew that Iraq could not possibly resist the coming onslaught. It took Jordan much of the 1990s to repair the resulting frayed relations with the Gulf and the United States. In 2003, as the United States prepared to finish off the Saddam regime, Hussein’s son King Abdullah II supported the invasion of Iraq, despite well-founded misgivings. Like its neighbors, Jordan has made many disastrous policy choices; what sets it apart has been its ability to learn from its failures.
What also sets Jordan apart is its focus on domestic and regional stability. This emphasis typically overlaps US priorities in the region: Israeli security, oil price stability, and combating terrorism. The confluence of interests provides Jordan—one of the only patches of Middle Eastern desert devoid of easily recoverable energy resources—with its chief means of generating revenue: strategic rents. For Jordan, pragmatic policy is the reason that great powers are willing to prop up the country’s fragile economy. Jordan’s cautious posture on any given issue provides Western policy makers with a litmus test of a proposed policy’s practicality.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Syrian Civil War, which poses the most significant challenge to Jordan’s stability since the Hashemite monarchy’s Black September conflict with the PLO. An influx of roughly one million Syrian refugees has upset the Kingdom’s tenuous demographic balance, taxed its limited infrastructure and water resources, and placed further strain on its stagnant economy. Although international aid has largely absorbed the financial burden of the refugee crisis in the short term, how Jordan will bear the long-term cost of this likely permanent population is unclear. Chaos in Syria has also created operating space for hostile militant groups on Jordan’s northern border, and the rise of Syrian jihadism has energized a small but significant number of disaffected Jordanians. Jordan’s interests in Syria—especially in southern Syria, due to its proximity and tribal linkages—are directly connected to these challenges.
In contrast, the substantial resources of the Gulf Arabs and Turkey afford them the luxury of a foreign policy that combines ideology and interest. In the case of Syria, ideology appears to have been the dominant driver, given their scarce attention to how or why the desired end state—the forcible removal of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from power—would serve their core interests. The Gulf States are insulated by distance and money, and Turkey’s sheer size and powerful military render armed threats and needy refugees from Syria burdensome but manageable. Alternatively, the clarity and urgency of Jordan’s ends—domestic stability and deterrence—dictate a more flexible approach. Throughout the Syrian civil war, Jordan has been open to any options or groups that serve its interest in containing Syria’s people and problems.
As a result, Jordan’s elites tend to be skeptical of untested theories: most notably, the idea that removing Assad from power would simultaneously reverse the refugee flow and undermine ISIS. And they’re skeptical despite the idea’s theoretical appeal and relevance to Jordan’s core interests in suppressing jihadism, stanching the refugee flow, and catering to patron states that keep the Kingdom economically viable. Yet Jordan has acted against Assad only to the minimum degree necessary to mollify its more hawkish allies and has thus far been willing to pay a price in its relationship with the Gulf States for this reluctance to engage.
Therefore, King Abdullah II called for Assad to step down in 2011 but has shied away from taking any concrete steps to push for this outcome. Jordan facilitates CIA and Saudi efforts to train and equip what remains of the moderate opposition in southern Syria, the so-called Southern Front, but does so in strict secrecy and with ever increasing caution. Even as Jordan’s allies have condemned Russia’s intervention against the Syrian opposition under the guise of combating ISIS, the Kingdom has not opposed Russian strikes. Instead, Jordan has established a conduit for quiet communication with Russia regarding its role in southern Syria and has taken on the task of determining which Syrian opposition groups will be classified as terrorists by the International Syria Support Group, which is led by Russia and the United States.
Similarly, Jordan’s participation in the anti-ISIS coalition has been constrained by fear of blowback. Jordan announced its participation in the anti-ISIS coalition but has made mostly symbolic contributions to appease public sentiment after ISIS’ immolation of Lt. Moath al-Kasasbeh in early 2015. But despite some tough talk and a surge of strikes in February 2015, Jordan has ceased active participation in the aerial campaign. Since then, polling data have borne out Jordanian officials’ apparent determination that the public outcry did not reflect a permanent shift in favor of increased involvement in Syria. (Less than 30 percent of Jordanians favor any kind of support for the Syrian opposition.)
Jordan’s policy toward southern Syria also exemplifies Jordan’s pragmatism. As Dara’a province (the cradle of the Syrian revolution in 2011) rose up, Jordan, through its General Intelligence Directorate (GID), identified and supported moderate tribal and village militias with which it could replace receding regime authority. These groupings, which eventually coalesced under the political brand of the Southern Front, functioned throughout 2013 and 2014 as Jordan and its Western partners intended: a kind of second border guard that would act as a buffer against the jihadists to the north and east. The Southern Front was armed sufficiently to hold its ground but not enough to facilitate its greater ambition of toppling the Assad regime.
In early 2015, however, the Syrian regime’s critical lack of manpower began to show. Assad’s forces in the north were defeated on multiple fronts by a coalition of Salafist rebels that included Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. The trend was paralleled in the south, where the Southern Front—at times with the force-multiplier of Nusra’s suicide tactics—took much of the countryside around the provincial capital of Dara’a, including the economically vital Naseeb border crossing that connects Damascus to Jordan and the markets of the Gulf. At this, Jordanian policy makers had reason to worry, as the closure of the highway cut overland shipping to markets as distant as Russia. Even more problematic was the Southern Front’s failed attempt to storm Dara’a City against the advice of their Jordanian advisers and Western paymasters. The debacle of Operation “Southern Storm” in summer 2015 proved an embarrassment but did little to dent the growing international enthusiasm for the Southern Front as the only palatable force that could take the fight to Assad.
When Russian intervention in October 2015 checked the opposition’s momentum across Syria, Jordan was quick to view the new dynamic as an opportunity rather than a threat. High-level visits to Moscow by the King and the Jordanian chief of staff set a cooperative tone. Indeed, such visits may have empowered a silent majority of top Jordanian ministers and security officials to act on longstanding agnostic—and, in some cases, positive—attitudes toward the Assad regime by encouraging further contacts.
In short order, a covert cell of Russian and Jordanian officials was reportedly established in Amman to guide the Russian air campaign in Syria’s south. Under Russian air cover, pro-regime forces made grinding progress, conquering the strategic crossroads at Sheikh Miskeen in January 2016 and securing their hold over the majority of Dara’a City. Politically, battlefield advances brought deepened contact between the Assad regime and Jordanian government. (These ties had never been completely severed, and regime personnel have continuously staffed the Syrian embassy in Amman.) Multiple reports of Ali Mamlouk’s, one of Assad’s top security advisers and enforcers, visiting Amman to discuss southern Syria have surfaced in Jordanian media and in the Amman rumor mill. These visits fueled speculation that Jordan was preparing to cut a deal to hand parts of Dara’a province back to the regime. The Southern Front likely believed that it was being sold out.
And it was—to a degree. The King and his security advisers were demonstrating that their interests, not their alliances, were fixed. As the Southern Front became less able to play the role of buffer in the south, Jordan had no ideological qualms about keeping channels open with the party that might replace it. Tellingly, Jordanian officials were quiet about the Russian bombing of its proxies; it later emerged that Russia had informed Jordan early on of its intention to scale back its operational tempo once the regime’s position was stable. This is not to say that Jordan cast its opposition proxies aside. They remained preferable to the grim alternatives of jihadist factions such as Harakat al-Muthanna and the (formerly Southern Front but now ISIS-affiliated) Liwa’ Shuhada’a al-Yarmouk. Rather, Jordan made clear that it had other options, and its proxies would therefore have to toe the line.
And they have obeyed. The Southern Front has ceased offensive operations against the regime and is focused on consolidating its areas of control in the Dara’a countryside while combating ISIS inroads. There is little talk now within the Southern Front of being a “revolutionary” force. Senior figures in the group have quietly accommodated themselves to major elements of the Assad regime that would remain in place in a future settlement. This outlook is echoed on the ground, with foot soldiers having concluded that the fight is futile. Particularly in the wake of last summer’s failed effort to reclaim Dara’a City, many fighters have fled abroad rather than continue to fight the regime. Those who remain, despite Southern Front messaging, are divided among themselves according to village and tribe and are unlikely, now or in the near future, to mount the type of coordinated offensive being dreamed up in Western think tanks. Some kind of de facto reconciliation with the regime appears plausible in the not-too-distant future—exactly, it is likely, as Jordan hopes.
At this juncture, there is something of a tacit convergence of Jordanian and U.S. interests in Syria. Both U.S. and Jordanian policy makers are constrained by public opinion. Both have reason to doubt that even massive amounts of arms can unify the fractious Syrian opposition and that, even were this possible, Assad’s removal would pave the way for the emergence of moderate forces. As one top Jordanian policy maker put it, both “saw a stalemate coming” from the very beginning. This is not quite correct, at least as a characterization of views in Washington in 2011, but it contains more than a grain of truth in 2016. What is undeniably true is that Jordan, once again, has figured out how to pantomime collaboration while carefully protecting the interests that these whims would undermine.