jordan syria - Reuters - November 23 2011
Jordan and Syria. Photo by Reuters
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Jordan's King Abdullah is not an innovative leader. But last week he surprised Arab leaders and the whole world by becoming the first Arab ruler to call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign. "If I were in his shoes, I'd step down," he told the BBC.

This declaration set off a storm. The king's advisers warned him that the statement was likely to damage Jordan's interests - and the kingdom's relations with Syria even more. Right after the interview, representatives of the Jordanian royal court called Fahad Khitan, the editor of the Jordanian newspaper Al-Arab Al-Yawm, to ask him to delay the next edition so they could insert a few corrections.

So when the paper came out, the king said "Jordan holds that removing Assad would not change the situation and would not solve the problem." According to an editorial, "the king has not officially adopted the position that Assad should step down; his answer in the BBC interview was made to a hypothetical question, and Jordan does not have an official stance on the question of Assad's removal."

But the correction arrived too late. In Damascus enraged supporters of the regime attacked the Jordanian Embassy, though Syria apologized the next day. Within a few days British newspaper The Guardian published a report saying the Jordanian king had offered his services as a mediator between the West's position on Syria and the Arab League's, because Abdullah believed that Europe could help reach a solution faster than the Americans.

It's doubtful whether the Jordanian initiative could change the stance of the Arab League, which is dominated by the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They threatened that if a Syrian was invited to the foreign ministers conference in Rabat, Morocco, they wouldn't attend.

A political and legal error

Despite his change of nuance, King Abdullah has not been able to escape his troubles at home. Two weeks after new Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh was appointed to calm Jordan's streets, which had begun to show signs of rebellion, Khasawneh made a startling announcement: "The expulsion of Hamas from Jordan in 1999 was a political and legal error. I will tell you openly, when the expulsion took place, I opposed it."

The statement was made - not by accident - after a phone call to Khasawneh from Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, congratulating him on his appointment as prime minister. According to reports from Jordan, Meshal is expected to make an official visit to Jordan after meeting in Cairo with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to conclude a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas to establish a unity government.

Khasawneh, a 61-year-old judge who has served on the International Court of Justice, has been absent from the Jordanian political scene for 12 years and did not forge the new approach to Hamas on his own. There have been whispers in Jordan for several weeks now about the forthcoming reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

A no less important question is the thinking of Khasawneh, who was once part of a team negotiating with Israel and took part in the reconciliation with Jordan's Islamic bloc, to which the Muslim Brotherhood belongs. This is part of the change in atmosphere required for the regime to prove its intention to "bridge between the public and the government."

The thinking in Jordan is that when Assad's regime falls, Hamas will need a new home - this is likely to be an excellent chance for Jordan to return to the center of Palestinian politics, from which it has been excluded for a decade. In recent years Egypt held a virtual monopoly; only Syria managed to place obstacles in its path and manipulate Hamas.

Wild card Qatar

The factor apparently stirring the cauldron between Jordan and Hamas is Qatar, which recently held intensive talks with Abdullah in a bid to advance Hamas' return to Jordan. Jordanian sources say Meshal was to visit Jordan last week, accompanied by Qatar's crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, but the visit was postponed without explanation.

It appears that Hamas, which has been silent about the brutal repression in Syria, has still not decided which way to go. If Assad falls, and even if Hamas is not asked to leave Syria, the new regime is likely to stop giving it the generous services supplied by Assad.

Qatar could be a comfortable base, but it's far from the territories, while Jordan is conveniently near the West Bank and Gaza, even if it isn't offering patronage on the order of Syria or Qatar. On the other hand, Hamas has had no guarantee that Jordan will agree to the opening of Hamas offices, including a communications network and perhaps logistics bases. Hamas also has a problem with Jordanian public opinion; the Jordanian elite, for example, doesn't understand why Jordan has to reconcile with Hamas after its leadership joined the Syrian-Iranian axis.

A return of the Hamas leadership to Jordan would mark a significant political change in the organization's position. The establishment of a base in a country that has signed a peace agreement with Israel and is committed to Israel's security is not something even Israel can object to.