Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh recently announced that Syrian Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman would be expelled from the country, and Syria retaliated by saying that Jordan’s charge d’affaires would be expelled in return. The decision to expel Ambassador Suleiman appeared to have been prompted partly by Suleiman’s call for Syrian citizens to vote in the upcoming Syrian Presidential election. However, there are two things about this situation that need to be taken into account. First, a spokeswoman for the Foreign ministry also indicated that there were other reasons for Suleiman’s expulsion, including allegations that Suleiman engaged in actions that were offensive not only to Jordan but to Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well. Second, despite the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador, some Syrians resident in Jordan did indeed participate in the Syrian Presidential election, which is to be held in Syria next week.
What does the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador signify when Jordan ended up allowing Syrians to participate in the election? It appears, more than anything else, to signify the difficult position that the continuing crisis in Syria has placed Jordan in.
First, the Syrian election is clearly a farce. The country has been ravaged by conflict for more than three years in which more than 100,000 Syrians have died and almost three million have been displaced from their homes. It is inconceivable that any country would be able to successfully hold an election under these circumstances, even if it had a strong record of democratic elections prior to the outbreak of the conflict, which Syria does not. Indeed, the Syrian election is to be held under rules that are almost guaranteed to assure a victory for President Bashar al-Assad. The decision by Jordanian authorities to allow Syrians resident in Jordan does not by any means signify that the Jordanian regime supports an effort by the Syrian regime to undertake what is essentially a show that it still has many supporters in Syria despite the conflict.
However, Jordan may have decided to allow Syrians to vote at the Syrian embassy for another reason, despite the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador. This reason has little to do with the opinions of Jordanian authorities about Bashar al-Assad, and much instead to do with both internal demographics in Jordan and the stresses that the conflict has placed on Jordan. According to UNHCR, there are almost 600,000 Syrians resident in Jordan, which potentially places significant stresses on Jordan demographically. The Jordanian regime will undoubtedly seek to have as many of these refugees as possible return to Syria after the conclusion to the conflict. Therefore, when refugees residing in Jordan seek to vote in the election, even if it only involves the limited number able to travel to Amman, they are signifying their connection to Syria as well as their desire to eventually return, even if participation in this election also signifies support for the Syrian regime. Jordan is not about to prevent refugees from signifiying their interest in a return to Syria at some point in the future, even if that point would come after the end of a conflict that is currently not forseeable. For this reason, the Jordanian regime likely decided to move forward with allowing Syrians to vote despite the decision to expel Ambassador Suleiman