Syria and Jordan: War of Words

Damascus suspects Amman is complicit in US plans to establish an autonomous enclave in southern Syria


By Abdel Bari Atwan

A war of words has broken about between Jordan and Syria, the most ill-tempered public row between them in decades. It brings to mind the sharp deterioration in relations following the events of Hama in 1982, when Jordan harboured leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who launched an armed rebellion against the regime and fought bloody clashes with the army that caused between 20 and 30 thousand deaths.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad lit the fuse when he told the Russian news agency Sputnik that he has intelligence that Jordan is preparing to deploy forces in southern Syria in coordination with the US. He went further, accusing Jordan of having always been complicit with American plans in Syria and casting it as a puppet unable to take independent decisions. ‘It is the United States who defines the plans, who defines the players, and who endorses everything regarding Syria coming from Jordan, and many of the terrorists coming from Jordan — and of course Turkey — since day one of the war in Syria’, he said.

The Jordanian government was angered by these statements, both by their forcefulness and because they broke an unwritten diplomatic understanding between the two sides not to engage in public exchanges of recrimination or media wars. Its spokesman and minister of state in charge of the media, Muhammad al-Moumani, was tasked with replying to the Syrian president, and broke that understanding in turn. He described Asad’s remarks as ‘rejected’ and his accusations as ‘detached from reality’, and said the Syrian president could not blame Jordan for his inability to control most of his own country’s territory. Moumani said Jordan had always called for a political solution in Syria and worked to secure international support for one, so could not possibly be pushing for a military solution. He affirmed that Jordan is committed to supporting a political solution and to Syria’s territorial integrity, and stands against the terrorist groups that have invaded Syrian territory.

There are two main reasons for the apparently sudden rise in tensions that led to these harsh exchanges.

First, the support shown by the Jordanian authorities for the Trump administration’s evolving policy on Syria.  They backed Trump’s charge that Syrian warplanes bombed the town of Khan Sheikhoun with chemical munitions causing the deaths of 86 people including children — which was used to justify the firing of 59 cruise missiles Syria’s Shueirat airbase. Earlier this month, after King Abdallah met Trump in Washington, he gave a press interview in which he derided Asad and cast him as unfit to remain in power.

Secondly, revelations about the so-called Houran Pact, a blueprint for the establishment of an opposition-controlled autonomous enclave in southern Syria comprising the governorates of Deraa, Suweida and Quneitra. Details of this were reported both by opposition and pro-government media, including the Orbit channel and the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar.

The Syrian authorities believe Jordan has a hand in this scheme, as the region concerned is on its northern border, and that there is an agreement between the US and Israel to prevent Syrian government forces from retaking it along with their Iranian and Hizbullah allies. Ostensibly, this is to prevent it from being used as a base for attacks against the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and adjoining parts of Palestine.

The document, produced by a group of 22 Istanbul-based Syrian opposition figures who hail from the southern region, sets out plans for the establishment of a decentralized local administration in Deraa governorate. Crucially, such a step is consistent with plans for the creation of a federal Syria, an idea supported both by the draft Syria constitution proposed by Russia and in EU foreign affairs chief Frederica Mogherini’s paper on Syria’s future. Many see this Pact – which is to be discussed, amended if necessary and adopted by a ‘constituent conference’ and a ‘council of representatives’ — as a de facto ‘constitution’ for an autonomous Houran region.

Opinions are divided. The document’s supporters, or rather its authors, say it is not a constitution but merely a framework for decentralized administration and service provision in the governorate aimed at ending the current state of anarchy. Its opponents point out that it includes provisions which separate executive, legislative and judicial powers, define private and public ownership, and regulate services, media, education, culture and religious affairs. They see it is a constitution in all but name and a prelude to the partitioning of Syria under the guise of federation.

Some opposition figures from Daraa have publicly disavowed and condemned the document, such as Haytham al-Manaa and Khaled al-Mahameed, who issued a joint statement affirming their opposition to any division of Syria.  One of the document’s original group of authors, Nasser al-Hariri, dissociated himself from the final draft, saying it was worded too much like a declaration of autonomy or federation. ‘We do not need this kind of project at this stage,’ he said. ‘Efforts should focus on supporting the revolution’

After the Syrian’ army’s recovery of Aleppo and then Palmyra, attention is increasingly turning to Deraa governorate, most of which is not under the regime’s control of the regime. Influence there is shared between local clan-based armed groups and the Islamic State and Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly Nusra Front) organizations. It is expected to be the scene of military escalation in the days to come. On Friday, the Israeli army said it had attacked targets inside Syria in response to the falling of three shells on the Golan Heights. The Syrian government announced that Israeli warplanes fired two missiles at a Syrian military position near the Khan Arnaba on the Syrian side after troops resisted an attempted terrorist infiltration in the area.

Was Damascus right to accuse of Jordan of complicity in a US scheme for military intervention to take control of Deraa and turn it into an autonomous enclave in line with Trump’s ‘safe zones’ promise? Or will Amman’s categorical denials turn out to be true?  The answer will be provided by the tone of public exchanges between the two sides in the coming weeks. If Asad is right, the war of words will heat up. If not, it can be expected to subside.

Either way, of one thing we can be sure: escalation in southern Syria is very much on the agenda of the US and Israel, and Jordan will in any case face very difficult choices.

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