Jordan Pulse

Jordan's Daraa problem

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Article Summary
The battle against Salafists in Daraa, Syria, is becoming a shared interest between Damascus and Amman.

AMMAN, Jordan — The southern Syrian governorate of Daraa has become a security issue for Jordan as much as it is an existential challenge to the Damascus regime. In recent weeks, anti-Syrian regime rebels have tightened their grip over most of its territory. Recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a visiting Jordanian delegation, “Daraa has become a Jordanian problem.”

In response, Jordan government spokesman Mohammad Moumani told a local newspaper that Amman viewed Assad’s comments positively and, “Daraa was a Jordanian–Syrian problem.”

News reports spoke of military advances by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in various towns in the governorate, including its capital city Daraa, which is located a few kilometers from the Jordanian-Syrian border. The Syrian uprising broke out in Daraa in March 2011 and, through its borders with Jordan, hundreds of thousands of Syrians crossed seeking refuge. Jordan now hosts no less than 600,000 Syrians, including 120,000 refugees in the Zaatari camp. Aside from the economic burden of hosting the refugees — estimated at billions of dollars — Jordan is also worried about the security risk these refugees pose.     

Syria had accused Jordan of facilitating the passage of fighters and weapons into its territory through Daraa — accusations which Amman has consistently denied. In fact, Jordan has tried a number of Jordanians on charges of attempting to cross the Syrian border illegally. Most of those who managed to cross belong to the jihadist Salafist movement, a small group that is active mainly in the governorates of Maan and Zerqa. The group never hid the fact that it had dispatched fighters to join Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel coalition affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Recently, the London-based European Centre for Syria Research said 6,113 foreign fighters have been killed in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011, including 128 Jordanians. The Jordan Times claimed that currently there are at least 2,000 Jordanians fighting in Syria against the regime. According to Mohammed Shalabi, or Abu Sayyef, head of the Jordanian jihadist Salafist movement, fighters continue to cross into Syria from Jordan along the 320-kilometer (198-mile) shared border. The paper said that most fight with Jabhat al-Nusra while the rest have joined the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). But jihadist Salafist leaders have complained that Jordan is currently running a security operation against them and that dozens have been arrested recently.

The growing number of Jordanian jihadist Salafists fighting in Syria is a cause of worry for the Amman government. There are fears that Darra could become another Anbar, in reference to the Iraqi province, which at one point became a haven for al-Qaeda terrorists headed by Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi. He claimed responsibility for the bloody bombing of three Amman hotels in 2005 that claimed the lives of 60 people. He was later assassinated in a joint US-Jordanian covert operation.

Jordan supported the Syrian political opposition but always insisted that it was backing a political solution to the crisis. In recent months, it distanced itself from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), but Damascus continued to accuse Amman of allowing a joint-operations room to function in the north, not far from the Syrian border, whose aim was to coordinate anti-regime effort and offer logistical aid and even weapons to the FSA. The operations room, according to Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad, is run jointly by Saudi, US, Jordanian and Israeli officers. Unconfirmed reports spoke of Saudi Chief of Intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan visiting Jordan last month and overseeing plans to set up a Sunni army to face the coalition of Shiite and Alawite forces defending the Damascus regime.

Jordan denied such reports, but there are signs that Amman is facing pressure from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to open up its northern borders to allow fighters and weapons to pass through. So far, Jordan has resisted such pressures. In fact, it has taken a number of measures to restrict passage of Syrians through the Daraa border. Minister of Interior Hussein al-Majali was quoted by the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper as saying that such measures fall under “decisions of sovereignty.”

It now appears that Jordan is looking to mend its shaky relationship with the Damascus regime in light of recent political developments and ahead of the Geneva II conference. Signs of a possible thaw in relations cannot be missed. Syria’s permanent representative to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, told Al-Ghad newspaper on the eve of Jordan’s bid for election as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council that his vote will go to Jordan. This came a few days after Jaafari accused Jordan of allowing terrorists to cross its border into Syria. Jaafari and Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh exchanged pleasantries at the UN after the vote.

Pundits now believe that Jordan could be getting ready to coordinate directly with the Syrian regime to strike potential al-Qaeda groups in Daraa. Assad has made a compelling case against the presence of “terrorists” on Syrian territory. Jordan is worried that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS could soon replace the FSA in Daraa and pose a direct threat to Jordan’s national security.

It is not inconceivable that Jordan, along with the FSA, could coordinate covert strikes against Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in cooperation with the Syrian regime. Such intervention could take place in the coming weeks, ahead of the Jan. 22 Geneva II conference.

The Syrian regime is busy fighting rebels in Qalamoun, Ghouta and Aleppo. It is unlikely that it will turn its attention to Daraa soon. This leaves Jordan to handle the so-called “Daraa problem” on its own. So far, it has tightened control of its northern borders, mounted a security campaign against Jordan’s jihadist Salafists and is carefully watching unfolding developments in Daraa. Jordan has intervened before in Anbar, and it is possible that it will soon intervene in Daraa. Fear of a possible spillover of the Syrian conflict into Jordan is being taken seriously.

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Found in: jordanian-syrian relations, jordanian-syrian border, jihadist salafists, jabhat al-nusra, daraa, bashar al-assad

Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman who specializes in Middle East issues. He can be reached at alsharif.osama@gmail.com. On Twitter: @plato010

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