What does the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador signify?

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

 

What would a buffer zone mean for Syria and Jordan?

The conflict in Syria, which has had such a massive and devastating impact on Jordan moreso than perhaps any other country except Syria itself, appears that it is entering a new phase.

There are many current indications that the US and its allies are preparing some type of intervention. The US is leaving warplanes and missile batteries in Jordan at the request of the Jordanian regime, which could be used to enforce either a no fly zone or a more limited buffer zone, though the Obama administration has not yet made any public decisions about this yet. A recent report indicated that one potential option under consideration by the Obama administration is for a limited no fly zone along the border that would extend approximately 40 km into Syria, and would be enforced by aircraft operating from within Jordan. These pilots would be able to enter Syrian airspace in self-defense if they were fired upon or encountered advancing planes, although US air-to-air missiles have a sufficiently long range to make that scenario potentially unnecessary.

Interestingly, the publicly stated positions of the Jordanian government are not necessarily in line with these news reports. Jordan Times quotes a government spokesman, Mohammad Momani, as saying that the Jordanian government opposes international military action in Syria. In a speech on Sunday at a graduation at Mutah University, King Abdullah said that the crisis imposed “some harsh realities” on Jordan but said that Jordan has a moral responsibility to help those affected by the conflict, and that he favored a political solution. He also said that “the first and ultimate goal has been to protect Jordan and Jordanian’s’ interests.”

How should comments by the government spokesman and King Abdullah be examined alongside the media reports that Jordan has given approval to the use of its territory to enforce a no-fly zone along the border? Is this another example of the regime telling one thing to foreign diplomats and officials and another to the Jordanian people? That is probably part of it, but there is also something else – what these proposals may signal is that the Jordanian regime believes that it cannot continue to admit large numbers of refugees from Syria for much longer due to the strain that they are causing and wants to establish a buffer zone along the border so that it does not have to do that anymore. This would be in line with a recent Al-Monitor article that says that Jordan has closed border crossings with Syria and that there are large numbers of refugees who are stranded along the Syrian side.

The article says that large numbers of refugees are waiting in the Daraa region border villages of Naseeb, Tell Shihab, and Heit, and that a large number of refugees were waiting in Tell Shihab. In the event that a no-fly zone were implemented that extended 40km from the border between Jordan and Syria, this area would be within the no-fly zone, so the Jordanian regime might then say that it no longer needs to admit the refugees because they are within a buffer zone inside Syria, where rebel forces would also be provided with training. What this means is that upon closer examination the proposal for a “no-fly zone” may be as much about taking the pressure off of Jordan. The regime’s denial that it supports intervention in Syria can be understood in the context of not wanting to appear subordinate to the United States, due to the fact that there are some within Jordan who would object to a major presence of American forces.

The problem with this proposal, if one puts aside potential objections to American foreign policy, is that it carries all the negative elements of American intervention while also being inadequate to change the balance of power inside Syria, as the regime has gotten the upper hand recently. It is in many ways not a decision to intervene so much as a decision to preserve the status quo in a modified way for a longer period of time, even though for refugees in the potential buffer zone life may be worse than it is within Jordan.