Does the Jordanian/Russian Arms Factory Signify Something Deeper

On Thursday, King Abdullah attended the opening of the ADARA Equipment and Defence Systems Company’s (JRESCO) factory in Amman. What was significant about this ceremony was that there was someone else present as well: Russian Ambassador Alexander Kalugin. The factory is part of a joint venture with Russia to produce the Nashab RPG-32, which Jordan Times reports is superior to the RPGs that are currently used by the Jordanian armed forces, and a statement said that the new RPG “is highly efficient in penetrating armoured vehicles and destroy bunkers.” Russia is, of course, providing weapons to the Syrian regime as well during the civil war, meaning that Jordan is manufacturing weapons as part of a joint venture with Russia even as Russia contributes to the conflict that is causing refugees to spill over into Jordan.

What does this mean? Is it simply an economic arrangement or does it signify something deeper regarding Jordan’s relations with the Russia and the United States? What is interesting about this arrangement in particular is that a 2012 poll by Pew indicated that apart from Japan, Jordanians had the most negative opinion of Russia in the world, with 70 percent viewing Russia negatively. These attitudes are not short-term, as the percentage of Jordanians who viewed Russia negatively was 49 percent in 2007, 58 percent in 2009, 58 percent in 2010, 63 percent in 2011, before rising to 70 percent in 2012. While polling data is not yet available for 2013 it would not be difficult to imagine that the conflict in Syria has caused the opinions to become even more negative.

What is the reason for this joint venture? Is it purely a business transaction or is it something more? Is it perhaps a way of reaching out to Russia to signify that Jordan should not be thought of as a US satellite by Moscow even though it has traditionally been a US ally in the region? Is it a way of gaining more leverage with the United States by hinting that it could turn to Russia as an alternative (despite the implausibility of allying with a country that is viewed so unfavorably by the Jordanian people)? Is it good public relations to have this factory opening the same week as a delegation from the US congress visited Jordan and met with Prime Minister Ensour? Was this just a coincidence or was it thought through? If it was it seems as though Jordan has little to gain from it. Is it perhaps a way of seeking aid from another resource-rich country?

In the end, only time will tell what this means for the future of Jordanian relations with Russia and the United States and whether this is part of a broader trend. It is, however, an interesting development in a region affected by a conflict in Syria in which Russia’s involvement has been critical in sustaining the Assad regime.

Is there hope for the “Friends of Syria” meeting on Wednesday?

As Jordan prepares to host a Friends of Syria meeting on Wednesday to be attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the conflict in that country seems only to be getting worse. Prospects for a solution to the conflict seem dim, and Jordan is the country most affected by it apart from Syria itself. The Geneva 2 conference sponsored by the United States and Russia that is expected to take place next month is still plagued with uncertainty as the opposition has been unable to agree on who exactly will represent it in the negotiations. President Assad took a hard line in a recent interview in which he called opposition forces “terrorists” who he would not negotiate with, while the opposition remains divided amongst itself. Despite tens of thousands of deaths and 1.5 million refugees the conflict shows no sign of concluding anytime soon.

At the meeting on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, Germany, and Italy will meet to dicuss events in Syria. They will also try to decide on common positions ahead of the Geneva 2 Conference.

In perhaps a disturbing analogy, an article on Al-Monitor says that the negotiations would begin “Vietnamese Style” without a ceasefire. The issue is that if an agreement is reached while fighting continues there is a risk that it will be meaningless on the ground even as its signing appears to be a major achievement.

Meanwhile, the conflict continues. Jordan is now hosting 500,000 Syrian refugees with more entering the country every day as the conflict has escalated. Al-Jazeera reports that the Zaatari refugee camp will become the world’s largest by the end of the year if the conflict continues, and that if it were a city it would be Jordan’s fifth largest. In addition, it is also important to recognize that things could get worse, a lot worse, if this conflict continues. Syria has approximately 22.5 mllion people, with 1.5 million of them living as refugees. Of those refugees, one third of them are in Jordan, temporarily increasing the population from 6.5 million to 7 million. It is not difficult at all to envision hundreds of thousands more refugees entering Jordan if the conflict continues. In addition, every single regional actor has been drawn in, and the recent battle in Qusair had Hezbollah fighting alongside Syrian troops, with Israel threatening more air strikes.

Where do things go from here? This conflict is not and should not be portrayed as a manichean struggle between a virtuous opposition and an evil regime. Some in the opposition undoubtedly support an authoritarian state, albeit one of a different kind, and many countries backing the opposition have either problematic histories in the region, or human rights abuses of their own. But one also cannot escape the recognition that in Syria there is a regime that believes it should be in power regardless of what the Syrian people decide. Even if one were to pretend, for a moment, that most of the population supported Assad, there is nothing in his past actions that indicates a willingness to take the opinions of the Syrian people into account. Of this there is no doubt. Coupled with the regime’s willingness to retain power at any cost is the notion that loyalty to the regime and to the country of Syria are bound together, creating a bizarre logic in which those taking up arms against a regime that has shown its willingness to commit brutal atrocities are “terrorists” and where Syria must be defended against its own people. It’s a worldview where Syrians opposed to the regime are agents of foreign influence but Hezbollah fighters are not.

There is little immediate prospect of a solution to the conflict, and it seems that for the time being Jordan will continue to bear the greatest proportional burden as fighting continues.