Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, shown here during an interview granted to Italian national public television in 2018, has been winning over former foes in the Middle East, including Jordan. Photo: AFP / SANA

After suspending political and economic ties with its northern neighbor for nearly 10 years, Jordan is going at full speed to try to rebuild relations with the Syrian government. 

The kingdom’s rapprochement appears to reflect a growing conviction in the region that engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the best way to preserve one’s own interests. Ideological and political differences are being shelved as Amman seeks to improve coordination with Damascus in several strategic areas, including trade, security and water supply.

In addition to other flaws in its approach, Amman’s pragmatic calculations are overestimating Assad’s ability or will to respond positively to normalization efforts. With the civil war all but won, the Syrian regime now sees itself in a stronger position, and this limits Jordan’s leverage and reduces the consequences when Damascus decides not to live up to Jordan’s expectations. 

Amman’s foreign policy toward Syria has evolved significantly from the earliest stage of the conflict in 2011 when Jordan bet on the Syrian opposition prevailing against the Assad regime.

Jordan was among the first of Syria’s neighbors to cut ties with Damascus, vote in favor of Syria’s suspension from the Arab League, and call for Assad to step down. Amman even hosted regional and Western intelligence operations to train and arm Syrian rebels.

Yet ties between the adversaries started to warm up after 2017, for several reasons. Chief among them was the Assad regime’s survival and then recapture of southern Syria. Assad’s ability to turn the tide in his favor pushed Amman to look for less hostile ways to secure its strategic priorities in Syria. 

The kingdom’s new approach focuses on helping the Syrian government break its diplomatic isolation through restoring its bilateral relations with Damascus and working on re-introducing Assad to the international community. To that end, Amman has ramped up talks with Syria, hosted several meetings with senior Syrian officials and facilitated a phone call between Assad and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Jordan has also been trying to persuade the US, among others, to adopt a pragmatic path toward gradual behavioral change in Damascus. In exchange for this, Amman is expecting the Syrian government to work with it on increasing economic cooperation, reviving old water agreements and fighting drug smuggling.

While the Assad regime might be looking for some sort of trade-off with Amman, Damascus does not seem to be on the same page when it comes to what the kingdom is expecting of it. Assad feels that Amman’s strategic shift was done out of despair due to the failure of its hostile approach. It is seen as a sign of the kingdom’s surrender rather than as a valuable goodwill gesture to break Assad’s diplomatic isolation after a decade of civil war.

Precisely put, Assad’s military, and more recently political, victories have emboldened him to be more selective in delivering on the asks that he is comfortable with.

For example, the alignment of the two states on the rapid resumption of cross-border trade has made this task easier than others. That was evident in the mutual decisions made to reopen the border crossing in September and re-establish the joint free zone between the two countries, which has contributed to boosting cross-border commerce. 

However, Damascus appears to be less cooperative with regard to reactivating a water agreement, which is one of Amman’s vital interests in Syria.

Jordan, which is suffering from water scarcity, has been trying to persuade Syria to resume water-sharing from the Yarmouk River.

According to a 1987 treaty, Syria has to supply Jordan with 200 million cubic meters of water from the river every year. Syria, which is also facing a dire water shortage due to drought and reduced supplies from Turkey, has been ignoring Jordan’s demands to increase the flow. This stance will probably continue for the foreseeable future. 

Jordan is also hoping for greater cooperation with the Syrian government on tackling drug trafficking, which Amman considers one of the biggest threats to its national security. 

According to the country’s deputy prime minister, Jordan has for months been thwarting smuggling attempts and seizing large amounts of drugs coming from Syria. Amman has been conducting high-profile talks with Syrian officials to increase efforts to secure the border and intercept the drugs heading into Jordan.

While the Assad regime has foiled several attempts to smuggle captagon pills out of Syria, the drug trade has continued to boom. According to a New York Times report, powerful associates of Assad are making and selling the amphetamine, “creating a new narco-state on the Mediterranean.”

Amman’s decision to adopt a friendlier position toward the Syrian government is not enough to incentivize Assad to increase cooperation in areas other than trade. That is because the incentives offered by Jordan to Damascus are taken for granted and are seen by the latter as risk-free.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Haid Haid

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.