Jordan is anxiously watching military and security developments along its northern border with war-torn Syria, according to a number of Jordanian military and strategic analysts with whom Al-Monitor recently spoke amid heightened tensions between Amman and Damascus. Since King Abdullah II’s April 5 visit to Washington, there have been conflicting reports about a sizeable military buildup of US and British troops on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria, raising questions about a possible joint incursion into southern Syria, apparently to pre-empt and confront Islamic State (IS) expansion in the vast Badia region.
Speculation about an “imminent” operation inside Syria from Jordan prompted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an April 21 Sputnik interview, to lambast the kingdom, accusing it of being “part of an American plan” to deploy troops on Syrian territory. That triggered a war of words between Jordan and Syria, with a government spokesman in Amman, Mohammad al-Momani, on the same day issuing a statement rejecting Assad’s “fabricated allegations.” On April 26, Abdullah told local media figures that the kingdom will defend itself from any threats “without the need to have a role for the [Jordanian] army inside Syria.”
That should have put the matter to bed, but Syria viewed Eager Lion, the 24-nation war games held annually in Jordan, this year starting May 7, as a provocation and cover for an alleged invasion of southern Syria. Foreign Minister Walid Moallem held a press conference on May 8 in Damascus, warning Amman that although Syria is not in confrontation with Jordan, “If the Jordanian forces entered without coordination with the Syrian government they will be considered hostile forces.” Jordanian officials did not respond, but it became clear that the regime in Damascus was getting ready to take the initiative in southern Syria, and on May 15, it did.
Reports, based on information from rebel group in the south, spoke of the Syrian regime moving government troops supported by Iran-backed militias to the region near its border with Iraq and Jordan. This was the same desert area that US-backed rebels had taken control of after IS fighters withdrew. A few days later, the rebel forces appeared to have consolidated their hold on a number of villages in that region. The Syrian move coincided with an agreement reached in Astana by Russia, Turkey and Iran to designate four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, including one in Daraa, in the south.
Jordan and the United States have supported, as well as armed, so-called moderate rebel groups and local tribal fighters in southern Syria as a proxy force to prevent IS militants from infiltrating the region. The New Syrian Army, as the force is called, had participated in a fierce battle, along with US, British and possibly Jordanian special forces on April 10, to ward off an IS attack on the Tanf base on the Syrian side of the Jordanian-Iraqi border. It is believed that as IS militants are defeated in Mosul and soon in Raqqa, the vast region extending from Deir ez-Zor to Sweida, in eastern and southern Syria, will witness a major power struggle that will include the Syrian army, US-backed Syrian Kurds, New Syrian Army fighters and fleeing IS militants.
From the US perspective, extending the allied presence in that area would serve two major objectives: enable a pincer maneuver to encircle IS militants, and sever the land link between Iraq and Syria that Iranian-backed militias depend on for arms and men. The recent regime push toward the east and south is an attempt to derail such plans.
Southern Syria presents a complex security challenge for Jordan. While Amman has no intention of clashing with regular Syrian army troops in the south, it is particularly anxious about the presence of what Abdullah called “nonstate actors” in an April 5 interview with the Washington Post, referring to IS but also to Hezbollah and Iranian militias, including the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp. On May 12, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that Jordan does not want “terrorist groups or sectarian militias on its northern borders.” He reportedly requested Russian intervention in that regard.
Jordan's northern borders remain tense. On May 11, Amman announced that its air force had shot down an unidentified drone near the border with Syria. Four days later, two car bombs exploded in the makeshift Rukban refugee camp close to the Jordanian border, killing at least six civilians. Jordan had repeatedly warned that the camp, with nearly 100,000 refugees, has been infiltrated by IS militants.
The southeastern Syrian desert aside, Jordan continues to monitor the presence of the so-called Khaled Ibn al-Walid Army in the Yarmouk River basin as a danger that is too close to comfort. The heavily armed IS proxy group, numbering about 5,000, is vying for control of parts of the Daraa governorate with another radical foe, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), which has overcome most government troops in the old city of Daraa. The close proximity of these al-Qaeda loyalists is another security headache for Jordan.
In the absence of a clear US strategy on Syria, Jordan has tried its best to sustain its precarious balancing act in anticipation of a possible breakthrough in the tumultuous political process in Geneva. It is also keeping its cards close to its chest, with the military option, in the form of special commando operations in southern Syria, very much on the table.
So far Amman has opted not to take part in the latest Astana free-zone agreement, but as retired military analyst Fayez al-Duwairi told Al-Monitor, the kingdom is expecting military confrontations between various parties in southern Syria — including Hezbollah, IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — which remains Amman’s biggest concern. Duwairi asserted, “Eventually, Jordan may want to take part as a monitor of the de-escalation zone, especially if that involves the repatriation of refugees.”
Political analyst Amer al-Sabayleh told Al-Monitor that although Jordan does not want to venture into Syria, it is keen to support local groups that can serve as a buffer against the infiltration of terrorist groups, especially after the battles against IS in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
These assertions do not clarify whether Jordan will come, or is coming, under US pressure to engage in a military operation in southern Syria. Fear of an Iranian land corridor extending from Tehran to Beirut through Iraq and Syria is shared by Amman and Washington, not to mention Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Can Jordan reconcile its own security calculations with those of the United States under President Donald Trump? That remains an open-ended question.