This piece is part of the Global Dynamics of the Syrian Conflict series, in which Carnegie experts from all over the world analyze the strategic and geopolitical interests at play in the ongoing civil war. View the full series here.
Jordan is struggling to perform a delicate balancing act as a result of the Syrian quagmire. On the one hand, the continuation of the conflict will exacerbate Jordan’s serious political, security, economic, and demographic problems. On the other, the conflict’s end could preserve or bring to power antagonistic forces in Damascus, particularly if the Assad regime survives or is replaced by radical members of the opposition hostile to Jordan. Attempting to strike the appropriate balance, Amman is increasingly pursuing a policy of supporting neither the regime nor the opposition, while quietly working to help resolve the conflict through all possible means—both political and military—that do not endanger its interests.
The government in Jordan has rarely seen eye-to-eye with Syria’s Baathist regime. During the tenure of both Hafez al-Assad (who ruled Syria from 1971 to 2000) and his son Bashar, Damascus and Amman have generally supported policies that were in direct opposition to one another. While Syria has offered long-standing support to radical forces opposed to peace with Israel, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, Jordan has worked proactively with the United States and others in an effort to peacefully resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Syria supported Iran while Jordan supported Iraq.
Jordan has long been a more influential actor in the Arab world and the international community than its size and resources warrant due to its moderate outlook and proactive, diplomacy-oriented policies—a role that Syria could never accept. Damascus viewed Amman as too independent from Syria’s self-appointed position of leader of the nationalist, anti-Western discourse in the Arab world.
Yet, the fact that Syria and Jordan are neighbors with significant commercial ties means that the two countries have been careful not to upset their relationship beyond a point of no return.
During the first few months of the Syrian uprising, when it appeared that the Assad regime was in real danger of being toppled, Jordan took a daring public stand against the Syrian leader. This move was bolstered by the anti-Assad position of Saudi Arabia, a staunch political ally and financial supporter of the Jordanian government. It appeared then that the Baath regime would soon be replaced by more moderate forces that would be less friendly with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas and whose policies would hew closer to those of the Jordanian-Saudi axis. Syria’s reign as the spoiler of moderate policies employed by many other Arab governments appeared to finally be over.
But Amman’s lofty hopes for democratic change in Damascus vanished long ago. The resilience of the Syrian regime (which has been bolstered by heavy support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah) and the militarization and radicalization of the opposition have produced a brutal stalemate. The destruction of lives and property has been massive.
The conflict has also created a refugee problem that is of enormous concern to Syria’s neighbors, particularly Jordan and Lebanon. According to official estimates, there are as of May 2014 over 1.3 million Syrian refugees and residents in Jordan, comprising around 15 percent of the country’s total population. Only 150,000 of those refugees are in designated camps in the north of the country, while the rest are dispersed throughout Jordan with little governmental oversight. Some Jordanian cities that border Syria, such as Mafraq and Ramtha, currently have more Syrians than Jordanians.
The shift in the balance between Jordanians and refugees is exacerbating tensions between the two communities, particularly as they compete for jobs and scarce resources like water. Jordan faces dire economic conditions, including official unemployment figures hovering around 12 percent. The budget deficit, taking into account deficits due to energy subsidies, has reached 15 percent of GDP. These economic challenges are only exacerbated as the number of refugees rises.
Of course, Jordan is no stranger to refugees. And in the long run the refugee issue will pose serious demographic and political problems for the country.
Following the war in Iraq that began in 2003, a majority of the more than 200,000 Iraqis who fled to Jordan never went back to their home country, even after the conflict abated. Similarly, it appears likely that Syrian refugees will remain in Jordan for the foreseeable future, taxing the country’s resources.
What is more, the state has been struggling for decades with determining who is a Jordanian due to the influx of Palestinian refugees who were given Jordanian citizenship following the 1948 war with Israel. With the significant number of Syrians and Iraqis in Jordan—around 20 percent of the country’s total population—the issue is even more complicated.
The rise of radical Salafi forces in Syria is also of concern because a new radical Syrian regime on Jordan’s borders would pose severe threats to Jordanian security. Amman is already trying to deal with a rising Salafi movement inside its territory, and many of the country’s most radical elements are going to fight in Syria. The return of any of these fighters will pose additional challenges to the country and help further radicalize the Jordanian Salafi movement.
The growing presence in Syria of radical opposition forces aligned with al-Qaeda has also eroded what was once a solid majority of Jordanians in support of the Syrian opposition. While a strong majority of Jordanians continue to have very unfavorable views toward Assad, it’s also safe to say that a growing number of Jordanians no longer support overthrowing him, fearful of what comes next.
Though a rapid end to the conflict would help remedy these problems, Jordan can ill-afford a scenario in which Assad wins and subsequently assumes an even more antagonistic political and economic stance toward Amman. Jordan’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the West, as well as its own differences with the Syrian regime, makes reconciliation with Assad virtually impossible. Indeed, the Assad regime has publicly and repeatedly accused Jordan of training anti–Syrian regime fighters on its territory.
Jordan’s best bet appears to involve publicly stating its neutrality while quietly supporting and attempting to expedite a process that would replace the current Assad regime with moderate elements from both within the Syrian government and the opposition. That goal has so far proved elusive to countries far more powerful and influential than Jordan, but Amman has few options other than its current ambiguous policy.