Jordan Considers Creating Buffer Zone in Daraa

While Jordan prepares to welcome 200 US troops, it is considering creating a buffer zone in the southern Syrian city of Daraa to stave off the flow of refugees, writes Tamer al-Samadi.

al-monitor Children take part in a celebration in Daraa organized by the Free Syrian Army to mark the two-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, March 18, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Thaer Abdallah.

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jordan, islamist movement in jordan

Apr 19, 2013

Jordan acknowledged for the first time yesterday [April 18] that it would be hosting American troops. At the same time, it emphasized its rejection of any military intervention in Syria, and called for a comprehensive political solution that halts the cycle of violence there. This comes amid reports that Amman is considering the creation of a buffer zone in Daraa, Syria, to stop the flow of Syrian refugees into its territory.

Government spokesman Mohammed Mumuni said, “The US Department of Defense suggested deploying 200 troops on our territory, in light of the security repercussions that may result from the Syrian crisis.”

He added: “The kingdom's position regarding what is going on in Syria has not changed. Jordan is against any military intervention, and calls for a comprehensive political solution that halts the cycle of violence and bloodshed there.” He stressed that “sending members from the US army to Jordan is part of the standard joint cooperation between the Jordanian armed forces and the US Army.”

A Jordanian army official, however, said: “Sending 200 US troops has nothing to do with the situation in Syria.” Speaking to the official Jordanian news agency [Petra], he said, “These soldiers represent the first unit among others that will take part in the Eager Lion exercise, which is held annually in Jordan.”

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said [April 17] that he will give commands to deploy additional US troops to Jordan to train the Jordanian army, in part to plan for a potential intervention to secure the safety of chemical weapons in Syria.

Jordanian officials have consistently refused to go into the details of Western reports, which confirm the presence of Western experts to train members of the Syrian opposition inside the kingdom. Recently, Jordan has refused to comment at all on these reports.

Yet, Mumuni’s acknowledgement that his country would receive US soldiers in the coming weeks resembles a “preliminary step” to receive additional troops that may play a crucial role in the Syrian war in the future, according to Jordanian military experts and political commentators who spoke to Al-Hayat.  

In an interview with Syrian state television [April 17], Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said: “The fire will not stop at our border — everybody knows that Jordan is just as vulnerable as Syria.”

These statements were interpreted to be a warning to Amman. Mumuni, however, responded only by saying, “We have taken [these statements] into consideration because of their political and security implications.”

The fact is, the potential repercussions of the ongoing violence in Syria on neighboring countries have raised concerns among senior Jordanian officials. The influx of Syrian refugees and the disruption of trade between the two countries have put pressure on an already weak economy.

These concerns are confirmed by the undeclared warnings made by King Abdullah II to his top aides in the past few days, where he directed them to be prepared to deal with all potential repercussions of the Syrian bloodshed.

These warnings came before the king meets with US President Barack Obama at the end of this month in Washington to discuss the Syrian crisis and its pressing repercussions in the region. Jordan’s concerns resulted from the possibility that the long-term sectarian turmoil in Syria could lead to its partition, which could negatively affect neighboring countries. Jordan — currently grappling with its own serious internal crises — also fears that Islamists could rise to power in Syria after Assad goes, which could motivate their Jordanian branch, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.

It seems that the biggest source of concern for Jordan is the rising influence of Salafist Islamists within the ranks of the opposition. They represent a small movement in the kingdom; however, they are strong and have combat experience. The leader of these Salafists — Mohammad Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf — said that he encourages the flow of Islamist fighters into Syria, and that hundreds of his supporters are already fighting there.

Over the past months, Jordan has been committed to its position calling for a political solution in Syria, and has opposed involving its troops in the conflict. Yet, the rapid developments at its heated border, the massive flow of refugees, external pressures, and — most importantly — the country’s attempt to ward off danger have probably required the adoption of a new approach to prepare for a buffer zone in Syria and the consequent logistics (primarily involving the military).

The Jordanian government is considering using the city of Daraa, which is the largest in southern Syria, to test the possibility of creating a buffer zone there and its ability to contain the conflict and its repercussions.

Maher Abu Tair, a political commentator close to decision-making circles in Amman, said, “Jordan is convinced that a regional war looms on the horizon and is seeking to take precautionary [measures] to secure its territory.” On the possibility of entering into the line of fire, he said, “Over the past two years, Jordan has been under enormous pressure to provide the Syrian opposition forces with support and assistance. It seems, however, that its ability to resist these pressures has remained partial.”

Maj. Gen. Fayez Douiri, a retired Jordanian army officer, said, “Over the past two years, Jordan has attempted to stay within a gray area, while safeguarding its relationship with the conflicting Syrian parties, in order to preserve its greater interests.”

He said the repercussions of the crisis in the past two months “have brought Amman closer to the Syrian opposition, particularly the moderate opposition. It is convinced that Jordanian interests lie in a safe and unified Syria, which the Assad regime can no longer provide.”

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