The acceleration of contacts between Jordan and Syria—including the unprecedented telephone call between President Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah of Jordan on October 3—marks a significant shift in the kingdom’s Syria policy. It takes place against a backdrop of the U.S. extrication from the Middle East and appears to reflect a growing conviction among certain Arab states that engagement with the Assad regime is preferable for preserving their interests than political pressure or awaiting indefinitely a change in Syrian behavior.
Jordan’s Syria policy changed in the aftermath of the Assad regime’s retaking of southern Syria in summer 2018 with the help of Russia. The rebellion in the south was terminated, and so was Amman’s support for it. Subsequently, Jordan attempted to revive economic relations with its northern neighbor, but this stumbled on several obstacles. The most significant of these was the U.S. decision to isolate Syria politically and economically, with which Washington expected its allies, including Jordan, to comply. Assad, in turn, had little interest in an economic opening to Amman that was not accompanied by a political rapprochement.
Much has changed since then. The Assad regime seemed safe until mid-2020, when Syria entered a deep economic crisis because of the economic collapse in Lebanon, which had acted as Syria’s economic lung, and the imposition of sanctions under the Caesar Act, U.S. legislation to punish the Assad regime. However, Assad did not crack and he did nothing to facilitate a political solution in Syria.
In light of Assad’s stubbornness and Syria’s worsening economic predicament, the regime’s downfall became a possibility. That scenario, and the chaos that would have prevailed in Syria had this occurred, motivated several Arab countries, Jordan the first among them, to alter their attitude toward Damascus. Implicit in this new outlook was recognition that the policy of regime change in Syria, or merely behavior change, had failed to yield results.
Yet the shift in the United States’ Middle Eastern policy was the most important reason for the transformation. The Biden administration’s disengagement from the Middle East, its prioritization of other regions, and its relative leniency toward Syria all provided a context for Jordan to change direction. President Joe Biden has also been more indulgent toward Jordanian priorities. After meeting with the U.S. president in Washington last July, King Abdullah gave an interview to CNN in which he signaled a major shift on Syria. The king stated, “The regime is there to stay […] moving the dialogue forward in a coordinated way is better than just leaving it as it is.
Waiting for a meaningful change in Damascus seemed fruitless, and even risky given that the possibility of regime collapse. As Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman al-Safadi, put it in an interview last month, it was no longer possible to pursue “approaches that have proven to be ineffective. We in the region are the ones who pay the price for the continuation of the [Syrian] crisis.”
More specifically, the old approach did not offer solutions to Jordan’s top priorities when it comes to Syria—security and economic stability in southern Syria, the revival of economic ties, the prevention of drug smuggling, and addressing the presence of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in the Jordanian-Syrian border area. Reestablishing ties with Assad’s government will not resolve all these issues, however it remains preferable to Jordanians for at least one specific reason.
That reason is that the importance of Jordan’s reengagement with Syria can act as leverage for Damascus to address at least some of Jordan’s major interests and worries. Assad is keen to reenter the Arab fold, as this would relegitimize his regime and pave the way for normalization with states in the region. Beyond that, normalization may open a path to the lifting of Western sanctions on Syria and, potentially, pave the way for Arab funding of Syrian reconstruction.
Jordan is on the frontlines with Syria, but the steps it is taking now reflect a wider Arab decision to reengage with Assad and a conviction that this can achieve tangible benefits. However, it is noteworthy that the Arab states are not yet unified on the matter. Recently, Arab League Secretary General Ahmad Aboul Gheit declared that there was no consensus among Arab countries about Syria’s return to the Arab League. Nonetheless, those backing engagement appear to be gaining the upper hand as was made clear at the 76th United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. For the first time in a decade, ten Arab foreign ministers, including those of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq met with Syria’s foreign minister.
The Syrian-Jordanian rapprochement will represent a precedent for other Arab countries, and even for countries outside the region. How much Assad is willing to give, or can give, in exchange for legitimacy and Syria’s reintegration into the community of Arab states remains to be seen. Nonetheless, by reengaging with Jordan at a time when the United States has decided to look the other way, the Syrian regime has managed to open a crack in the wall of its political isolation.