A friend of mine — a journalist at the prominent Russian newspaper Kommersant — recently wrote: “Jordan prepares the ground for the Helsinki summit.” And somehow it is true. Jordan, however, proceeds not with global charity in mind, but rather national interests that are seriously affected by the situation in southern Syria and the surge of refugees to the Syrian-Jordanian border.
After King Abdullah’s visit to Washington last month, Jordan proceeded with mediation between the US and Russia over southern Syria, led by Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.
The situation has risen in the southern de-escalation zone as the Syrian army launched an assault in response to alleged provocations by terrorist gangs in the area — although it is likely that it is just a pretext for Syrian forces taking control of the whole area up to the border with Jordan. Whatever the reasons for the assault, it resulted in a massive outflow of people from the area to the Jordanian border, sparking serious humanitarian concerns.
Jordan closed the border, saying it would be unable to cope with a new flow of refugees, and instead prepared trucks of humanitarian aid, which needed Damascus’ permission to cross the border and reach the newly displaced people. Officially this is why Safadi went to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov last week: To ask Russia to exercise pressure on the Assad regime to open the border for humanitarian aid. Even after Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova had declared the subsequent press conference over, Safadi asked for the floor again and stressed Jordan’s demand to exercise pressure on Syria to let the humanitarian convoy in. As in the best traditions of the rules of intelligence, he hoped the last thing said would be the most memorable.
Full results of Jordan’s shuttle diplomacy on southern Syria will become clear when Trump and Putin meet next week.
The situation with regard to Syrian refugees is dramatic for Jordan, as it places enormous pressure on the already troubled economy of the Hashemite Kingdom. However, two days after Safadi’s meeting with Lavrov, Russia and the rebel groups of southern Syria announced a deal that brought an end to the fighting and paved the way for refugees to return to their homes. Tens of thousands of the more than 300,000 displaced civilians returned on Saturday.
The de-escalation zone was established last year after the short Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin meeting on the sidelines of G-20 summit in Hamburg and was guaranteed by three sides: Russia, the US and Jordan. The US’ responsibility was to talk to the rebel groups and demand they disassociate from terrorist militias in the area. But, as was stated by Lavrov, they have not always been successful. Russia, in turn, guaranteed the withdrawal of non-Syrian forces — Shiite militias in other words — from the area, especially close to the Israeli-Syrian border, and it is apparently fulfilling its obligations.
Jordan is shuttling between Washington and Moscow, having exclusive relations with both. Both countries are interested in a stable Jordan; any complications there are worrisome and undesirable, so both countries are likely to listen to the concerned voices of Jordanian officials. The reasons why Jordan is important to the US and Russia are numerous, but they are different. Jordan’s strategic location allows it to play a significant geopolitical role in the region, despite poor natural resources and numerous economic problems. Jordan is a barrier between Israel and the Arab world, and is a key partner in the fight against terrorism. It is also a stable outpost in that part of the world, keeping it away from further chaos. It hosts US military bases and works perfectly as a mediator when it comes to slippery issues thanks to its very balanced and well-thought-out diplomacy.
For Russia, Jordan is a vital regional partner, with which it has a history of positive bilateral relations. Moscow hosts King Abdullah at least once a year and Jordan is considered an important counterpart for Russia in Syria. Furthermore, it has significant tribal influence in southern Syria, which is helpful in settlement issues in the area.
On the eve of the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit, the efforts of Jordan might lay the ground for some vital agreements between the US and Russia on Syria. It is unlikely the issue of the humanitarian convoy was the real reason for Safadi’s visit to Moscow — the actual purpose may stay hidden for now, but we might witness the results when Trump and Putin meet on July 16.
- Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme