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 political reforms can be expected from this parliamentary session?

On November 3rd, King Abdullah gave the speech from the Throne to open the current session of the Jordanian parliament. This speech opened what is the first ordinary session of parliament, as the session that was held following the elections was actually an extraordinary session.

His speech reiterated the government’s stated goal of providing for a gradual development of parliamentary government over a series of successive elections. In his speech he mentioned that the ideal type of parliamentary government would have not only a government but also an official opposition, both of which would be organized from parties that have defined platforms. He also called for the further development of political parties, partly by altering the way that parliamentary blocs operate, as under the current system MPs are free to switch parliamentary blocs whenever they choose to do so.

The Syrian refugee crisis was also mentioned in the speech from the throne, but it was on balance positive to see discussion of proposed reforms continuing even as that crisis continues. The King praised the armed forces in their role in handling the crisis, although Jordan has recently encountered criticism for allegedly deporting refugees seeking to enter from Syria. However, the Syria crisis, with its terrible humanitarian implications as well as the stress that it has placed on Jordan, seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

For this reason, it is good to see a focus on political reform – or even a continued mention of political reform – because this is a fundamental issue that cannot be overridden by a crisis forever. However, there are two issues that need to be mentioned. First – the regime has been discussing political reform for a long time, but reforms have not always gone forward. Indeed, the entire parliamentary process was suspended from 2001 to 2003, as it was prior to 1989. Before discussing why suspending political reform during a crisis is a bad long-term plan, it is important to note that these crises are not simply manufactured by the regime to justify delays in political reform. From 2001 to 2003 there were indeed challenges such as the second intifada and the beginning of the Iraq war, which led to a refugee exodus that continues to affect the demographics of Jordan today. The challenges then, as now, existed. It is also worth noting that Jordan is not alone in suspending parliamentary elections during times of crisis. Lebanon delayed its parliamentary elections this year amidst the conflict in Syria, in a decision that was understandable although not without controversy.

However, just because these challenges and crises occur does not mean that they merit suspending the political reform process. Passing legislation is a cumbersome and difficult process that requires many compromises, and implementing it is always a challenge as well. If the process itself is delayed by a crisis, then it will have to be restarted afterwards, and this means that further delays are inevitable. It is also possible that another crisis would occur, or the current one would continue. The point is that waiting to implement political reform at an ideal time may mean a lengthy wait for ideal circumstances that may never arise. There are actually a number of steps that could be taken now which could be implemented at the beginning of the next parliament, and if implemented would show that the regime’s pledges to implement reform have belatedly become more serious. These could include adding seats to underrepresented areas, as well as increasing the number of seats that are chosen by proportional representation.

Perhaps more challenging is the issue of parties – it is true that Jordan lacks coherent political parties in many cases, and it is also important to recognize that for a long time the regime had worked to discourage their development. A policy and an electoral system designed to be focused on distribution of largesse rather than on legislation is impossible to instantly overcome. Indeed, it could perhaps be argued that the development of political parties is something that cannot be legislated, it has to come from a change in behavior.

Political reform, if deeply embedded, will be able to survive a crisis of this type, and one of the end goals of any reform process is to ensure that the process itself need not be suspended during times of difficulty. This, fundamentally, is one of the challenges that Jordan faces during the current parliamentary session.

Are Syrian Children Being Denied Entry into Jordan?

According to a recent statement by Amnesty International, many of the refugees who have been recently waiting to cross the border from Syria into Jordan are families with young children who are fleeing the ongoing conflict. One of the examples that was discussed in the same Ammon News article is the case of Amina, who was told to return in a month with her six children. This is despite the fact that the conflict has prevented them from being able to return to their home village of Dera’a al-Hera, forcing them to live out on the road and forage for food. There were also reports of other families with young children who were being forced to turn back when they attempted to enter Jordan.

In an ongoing conflict such as this one, denial of entry into a neighboring country can mean a literal death sentence for many refugees. Said Boumedouha, the director of Amnesty International’s Middle Eastern division said that Jordan (and other neighboring countries) have an obligation not to deny entry to refugees. He also said that it is also important for other countries to provide aid to states like Jordan which are affected so heavily by the conflict. These reports of Syrians who can provide evidence of their citizenship in Syria represent a new and much less welcoming attitude to refugees who are escaping a desparate situation. Regardless of one’s belief about the effects of the conflict on Jordanian infrastructure, few would dispute the fact that it is immoral to deny children the chance to escape from a violent conflict. A report from December 2012 (which is admittedly several months old) say that a majority of the refugees in Jordan may be children. Many of these children have resorted to attempting to sell goods to other refugees for a little bit of income to provide for necessities.

It is true that the presence of the refugees has provided a strain on Jordan’s economy and infrastructure at a most unfortunate time. It is also true that the situation in the region as a whole compounds the difficulties to a large degree. Particularly stressful for many communities is the influx of refugees who are settling in urban areas rather than living in refugee camps, which makes aid more difficult to deliver. Another way that the conflict has stressed Jordan’s infrastructure is through the impact of lost trade revenue with Syria, prompting the economic collapse of communities that used to depend on trade with Jordan’s northern neighbor. When this economic collapse is coupled with an influx of refugees it is not surprising that a degree of resentment would develop among some Jordanians towards the refugees who have become unwitting symbols of the difficulties that the conflict is causing in Jordan. This resentment is not surprising but it is also unfair to direct it at the refugees or to blame them for the situation that the conflict has caused for Jordanians.

The decision to turn away child refugees is deplorable, but admitting more refugees when the pace of aid is unclear is indeed going to further strain Jordan’s resources. Families with young children must be allowed to escape the conflict, but more recognition is required of the strains on Jordan and indeed other neighboring states that the conflict in Syria has caused. Perhaps the real issue is not really the presence of refugees themselves but rather the fact that most of the parties supporting either side in this conflict are participating for real or perceived strategic advantage, while shifting most of the harm of the conflict onto neighboring states such as Jordan.

Is King Abdullah worried about being overthrown?

King Abdullah is said to have told US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and US Senator Lindsey Graham (a Republican from South Carolina) that he is afraid of being overthrown. This was revealed at a hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee at which Graham and Dempsey had an exchange in which they said they had both met with King Abdullah, who is said to be very concerned of being overthrown due to demographic changes in Jordan. He is said to have told Graham in 2012 that Syrian refugees may destabilize Jordan and cause his ouster, and when Graham asked Dempsey about it, Dempsey shared a similar concern.

Last year, as mentioned above, King Abdullah is said to have believed that demographic changes caused by the presence of Syrian refugees may be a potential cause of his overthrow. He is said to have told Graham that there would be one million Syrian refugees in Jordan and that this would pose a grave risk to the regime. As things stand now, the numbers of refugees who are present in Jordan is not completely clear. A recent report indicates that there are approximately 450,000 in Jordan presently, although this may be a low estimate. One important fact to remember is that while most of the refugees are in the Zaatari refugee camp, there are undoubtedly other refugees who are dispersed among Jordanian cities. Other reports indicate that the number of refugees in Jordan may be much higher, at about 800,000 in total. It is also true that Jordan is in poor financial shape and that it is ill-placed to cope with this influx of refugees who are fleeing from the conflict in Syria to the north.

This is, of course, not the first time that Jordan has faced a large influx of refugees who are fleeing a conflict that is taking place in a neighboring country. During the Iraq war hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Jordan although the exact number is hard to determine.

What are we to make of these comments that King Abdullah is said to have made about the potential of being overthrown? Perhaps it is genuine fear – the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees who are attempting to leave a conflict zone with no end in sight certainly has the potential to have a destabilizing effect. However, there may be something else at play here – an attempt by the regime to seek additional aid from the United States to address the costs of hosting these refugees. Perhaps both are involved. Only time will tell.

It is too early to tell what to make of King Abdullah’s comments about his potential overthrow, but what is clear is that the conflict in Syria has the potential to spread far beyond Syria’s borders. If it continues as it is now for an indefinite period it is impossible to predict the effects that it will have on the region and especially on neighboring countries, Jordan included.

Does Lebanon’s violence show what could happen in Jordan?

The last two days have seen clashes in Sidon between the followers of a radical cleric, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the Lebanese military, with the cleric taking shelter in his mosque with hundreds of followers, and 16 Lebanese soldiers killed in the clashes. The Lebanese military stormed his mosque but he was nowhere to be seen, although perhaps 30 of his followers were reported killed.

What does this incident mean for Jordan? On the surface, relatively little, because it was a local incident in Lebanon, with a cleric who gained popularity through a series of provocative stunts including repeated calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah, and culminating in attacks on the Lebanese army last week. However, when the incident is examined as a spillover from the conflict in Syria the situation becomes slightly more complicated. Certainly the specific grievances that were articulated are unique to Lebanon, as are the sectarian tensions due to that country’s demographic makeup.

However, there are two factors that show that similar types of violence may have the potential to erupt in Jordan. The first is the fact that Jordan has undoubtedly been the country most affected by the conflict in Syria except for Syria itself. The second is that Jordan itself has had recent outbreaks of violence. An article in Al-Monitor that was written following tribal violence in the city of Karak on a university campus shows that such violence is becoming more common, with 80 fights at universities in 2012 compared to just 31 two years earlier. Logic would dictate that if someone was willing to engage in armed violence related to tribal disputes the potential exists for violence to erupt over other issues such as the conflict in Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict is showing itself as intractable as ever as the Syrian Foreign Minister said that the regime was not going to Geneva to hand over power to the opposition but to agree to national unity government, which many in the opposition appear highly unlikely to accept.

In this context, it seems much less implausible that even if the conflict in Syria does not actually spill over across the border there might still be violence triggered by the issues relating to that conflict. Make no mistake – the conflicts relating to Syria can spill across international borders even if the actual fighting itself does not.

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.

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.

Is the Regime Blaming the Syrian Refugee Crisis for Its Reform Failures?

King Abdullah of Jordan, alongside his Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh have once again attempted to deflect criticism from their own regime’s failures by blaming external events. In this case, they are blaming the spillover of Syrian refugees across the border into Jordan for many of the nation’s recent difficulties. The spillover of Syrian refugees has been occurring since the Syrian revolution, and the effects of it cannot be ignored.

According to UNHCR approximately 205,000 refugees have entered the country and this number is only expected to increase. Jordan has always been notable for its open-door policies regarding its surrounding countries, as seen in 2007 with the spillover of Iraqi refugees, not to mention that 67 percent of the population is of Palestinian origin. The effects of these refugees have hurt and will continue to hurt Jordan economically, socially, and politically. First, these refugees are not allowed to work in the country, leaving them economically strained. Second, Jordan doesn’t have the funds to support these refugees, leaving 70 percent of the them dispersed in the cities along the border with Syria rather than the refugee camps, creating problems for aid groups attempting to locate them and provide assistance. More importantly, Jordan doesn’t have the means to support its own people let alone outsiders seeking refuge from conflict.

In an interview with Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch, Nasser Judeh asserts that not only has the international community not helped aid Jordan in this crisis, but also this crisis will deeply hurt Jordan. However, the regime is no way in trouble solely due to the spillover of refugees. The protests in Jordan that have occurred every Friday since January 2011 have rarely if not ever called for the government to address the Syria issue, rather the people taking to the streets are demanding reform regarding domestic issues such as corruption, the economic crisis, the role of the Mukhabarat (Jordanian state security) in people’s everyday lives, human rights violations, and so forth.

We must also note that in 2007, the Jordanian government inflated the number of Iraqi refugees coming into the country to receive more international funding. Once this funding was received, Jordan did not efficiently allocate the funding to solve the crisis. Would it be above this regime to inflate the number of Syrian refugees in the country at some point to obtain additional funding?

The true impact of the spillover of Syrian refugees into Jordan can only be analyzed seriously if the regime is truthful about the rest of the issues it’s facing. Jordan is not going to fall because of these refugees, but the crisis in Syria is going to deeply affect the current problems the regime, and the nation at large are facing. One cannot address the issues of the influx of refugees in its proper context until the other demands for reform are either met or at least talked about in a serious manner that isn’t intended to simply appease the people by promising fictional reform, and blaming events outside of Jordan when the regime does not live up to its promises.