Analysis |

The Jordanian King’s Roller-coaster Ride Into Syria to Stop Iran

The demonstrations in Amman have calmed down, but now King Abdullah must prevent ill-meaning Iranian forces from approaching Jordan via Syria

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
King Abdullah, left, and his son Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah performing an off-season pilgrimage to Mecca, June 10, 2018.
King Abdullah, left, and his son Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah performing an off-season pilgrimage to Mecca, June 10, 2018. Credit: Yousef Allan / Jordanian Royal Palace / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A short video published online by the Fayez family of Jordan reveals the fragile web of relationships King Abdullah must balance to keep his throne. It shows young members of the family blocking the main road from the town of Madaba to Amman.

The filming was done at night, and it’s hard to identify the participants, but the family left no room for doubt. “If Fares Fayez isn’t released from jail, we’ll block the highway to the airport, and that won’t be the last step,” the family threatened on social media.

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Fares Fayez is a famous opposition activist known for cursing Queen Rania and calling for the king’s ouster. During last week’s demonstrations against a new tax law, he published insulting posts against the king and his family and urged Abdullah to resign, charging that he is “chiefly responsible for all the corruption in the kingdom.”

Fayez was arrested about a week ago. Now the police will be in conflict not just with his family but with members of the large and influential Bani Sakhr tribe. If not contained, this conflict could drag Jordan into many other internecine battles.

The demonstration that resulted in Fayez’s jailing forced Abdullah to raise more money from his neighbors to finance the government’s operations, fund its $40 billion debt and, above all, substitute for the revenue the tax law was supposed to raise. Thanks to the demonstrations, this law is now in the deep freeze. “The previous government didn’t properly examine the law before approving it,” said the new prime minister, Omar Razzaz.

This is an uphill battle because Abdullah has once again discovered that aid from the Gulf states, and especially Saudi Arabia, comes with a diplomatic price tag that Jordan isn’t eager to pay. This price tag contributed significantly to the economic crisis that led to the tax law and the ensuing demonstrations.

When the protests began, the only country that expressed a willingness to help Jordan was Kuwait. It sent a special envoy to Amman to offer $1 billion in aid, half in grants and half in low-interest loans. The next to volunteer was Qatar, which is being boycotted by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

But accepting Qatari aid was problematic because it would put Jordan under obligation to Qatar and increase Qatari influence in the kingdom at the expense of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Thus Abdullah was in an impossible situation.

Riyadh didn’t rush to offer financial help, sufficing with supportive statements. Qatar came with a check that Jordan couldn’t accept until it knew what the Gulf states boycotting Qatar would offer. Meanwhile, the streets were seething and the people were threatening not to make do with Prime Minister Hani Mulki’s dismissal and appointment of a new government under Razzaz.

King Abdullah of Jordan flanked by Saudi King Salman, left, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Mecca, June 11, 2018. Credit: Bandar Al-Jaloud / Saudi Royal Palace / AFP

Mainly due to the “danger” that Qatar would become Jordan’s benefactor, Riyadh eventually woke up. It convened a summit with the UAE and Kuwait.

Meager aid

But the results were disappointing. The Gulf states offered only $2.5 billion, including the $1 billion Kuwait had already pledged. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were offering only $750 million each over five years – some in the form of a deposit Jordan could draw on, some as loans and some as guarantees that would help Jordan obtain loans from international institutions.

Jordan had hoped for $5 billion. But even that wouldn’t have been enough to stabilize the economy without painful reforms.

After receiving this offer, Abdullah told Qatar he would happily accept the $500 million it offered, which was accompanied by a pledge to employ tens of thousands more Jordanians in Qatar. The Qatari loan will arrive all at once, in cash, which will be extremely useful. In exchange, Jordan agreed to accept a new Qatari ambassador in Amman, after having downgraded relations about 18 months earlier under Saudi and UAE pressure, as part of their boycott of Qatar.

Razzaz, the new prime minister, couldn’t hide his disappointment with the Gulf states. Speaking in Jordan while Abdullah was in Kuwait, he said Jordan was under heavy diplomatic pressure, “but we won’t let anyone extort us.”

The newly appointed Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz (C) meets with member of Union leaders in Amman, on June 7, 2018. Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

The extortion in question relates first of all to Jordan’s refusal to accept Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” as long as Jerusalem, as Trump himself has said, is off the table. Amman also rejects Riyadh’s plan to deprive Jordan of its special status at Jerusalem’s holy sites as stipulated in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. Finally, Jordan isn’t willing to take part in the Saudi war in Yemen. In the past, it also refused Saudi demands that it either attack Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces or let an Arab coalition attack from Jordan.

It remains to be seen how Saudi Arabia and the UAE will respond to Jordan’s renewed friendship with Qatar. But this isn’t the only front where Jordan faces problems. The agreements Russia is making with Iran, Turkey and Syria about Syria’s future also worry Amman, mainly because of the proximity to the Jordanian border of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces.

Earlier this month, Jordan was supposed to host a conference of senior American, Russian and Jordanian officials to discuss arrangements for supervising the de-escalation zone in southern Syria. Under the earlier agreement that established this zone, Iranian forces are supposed to withdraw to a distance of 25 to 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Jordanian border, with Syrian army troops replacing them.

Israeli-Jordanian interests

But the meeting was canceled, apparently at Jordan’s request. This is mainly because Jordan (like Israel) opposes letting the Syrian army deploy in southern Syria, for fear that pro-Iranian forces will enter the area disguised as Syrian soldiers. Jordan wants guarantees that only Syrian soldiers, and no foreign forces, will control this zone. On this issue Jordan is aligned with Israel.

UN forces overlooking the Israeli-Syrian border, this monthCredit: BAZ RATNER/Reuters

Jerusalem seeks a deeper withdrawal of Iranian forces, to a distance of 50 to 75 kilometers from the Israeli-Syrian border. Both Israel and Jordan are now apparently waiting to see what the other achieves before finalizing its own position.

Russia would like Iranian forces to leave all of Syria – not just because Israel demands it, but to further its own plans. It has even said so publicly. But Iran refuses, as does Hezbollah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently declared that Russia can’t force Iran (much less Hezbollah) to withdraw.

>> Syria signals willingness to pull Hezbollah back from border with Israel, report says <<

In a media interview earlier this week, Assad said Iranian and Hezbollah troops would leave Syria only when they decided that the war on terror – that is, against the Syrian rebels – had ended. He said Iran, Hezbollah and Russia were all in Syria legitimately, having arrived at his invitation.

Russia doesn’t accept Assad’s view and is trying to pressure Iran and Hezbollah to at least quit certain areas if they won’t leave entirely. It has sent blunt military signals. For instance, Russian forces entered the Al-Qusayr region and other sites in the Qalamoun Mountains, near the Syrian-Lebanese border, without coordinating with Hezbollah, which controls these areas. Hezbollah harshly denounced the Russian move.

Admittedly, the Russian troops withdrew less than a day later, but the message was clear: If Russia decides that Hezbollah is in its way, it won’t hesitate to take military action against it.

This conflict recalls Russia’s actions during the evacuation of rebel forces from Aleppo: It created facts on the ground without consulting Iran. Only after Iranian and Hezbollah forces refused to let the buses full of evacuees pass did Russia include Iran in the discussions.

Though Jordan and Israel expect Russia to use its leverage against Iran, Moscow has moved delicately so as not to upset Iran. But now Russia may have a new and unexpected source of leverage.

The United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, the new sanctions it has already imposed and the additional ones it may impose, together with Europe’s hesitant response to these sanctions, will increase Iran’s dependence on China and Russia. But whereas China doesn’t demand anything for its extensive economic ties with Iran, Russia has already proved that it knows how to exact a diplomatic price – sometimes a high one – from countries dependent on it.

Granted, Russia denounced Trump for withdrawing from the nuclear deal. But it isn’t blind to the benefits it might reap from this decision.

Still, just as in the story of Jordan’s relations with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in which Jordan’s economic dependence didn’t produce political capitulation, it would be unrealistic, at least for now, to think Vladimir Putin can just pull a string and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will nod like a puppet.

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