Will Saudi Arabia pressure Jordan to join ground offensive in Syria?

The faint drumbeat of war could be heard in the Jordanian capital after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced Feb. 4 and Feb. 7, respectively, that they would be willing to participate in a coalition ground offensive in Syria to take on the Islamic State (IS). A Turkish official was then quoted Feb. 16 by Reuters as saying Ankara would like to see a ground operation if a consensus can be reached. Pundits in Amman, however, have expressed concerns about Jordan being dragged into a land war in Syria, warning that it would not be in the kingdom’s interest to join a US-led campaign there.

The mood in Jordan is driven by the fear that Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the kingdom, is pressuring Amman to supply troops or open its borders for a land incursion into southern Syria or both. The political commentator Mohammad Abu Rumman told Al-Monitor that at least three influential Saudi columnists had criticized Jordan’s low-key response to the Jan. 2 attack against the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, following the execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

One Saudi columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, criticized unnamed Arab countries in the Jan. 9 edition of Al-Hayat, charging, “You are either with us or against us.” Abu Rumman believes that Khashoggi's message was directed at Amman, and that such criticism of Jordan, which relies heavily on Saudi financial assistance, “is an indicato​r of the tepid relations between Amman and Riyadh, especially over the Syrian crisis.”

Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, Jordan's King Abdullah II has tried to keep his options open. Although he criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and called on him to step down, he did not sever diplomatic relations with Damascus and has insisted on a political solution to the crisis. In contrast, the Saudis openly called for Assad's removal by force and began backing rebels challenging the regime. Abdullah did, however, take a hard line against the growing threat of IS, whose members he described as outlaws, at a time when Saudi Arabia was focusing its military efforts on Yemen.

Jordan was the first Arab country to join the US-led air campaign against IS launched in September 2014. Abdullah referred to the offensive as “our war,” meaning Arabs and Muslims, but at no point has Jordan contemplated sending ground troops into Syria, even after IS captured and gruesomely killed a Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, in February 2015.

The Saudis' strategy on Syria began to change after Russia intervened militarily in September, greatly altering the fortunes of the regime’s fight against the rebels. Although never officially acknowledged, Western reports confirmed that Jordan had trained members of the Free Syrian Army and was instrumental in supplying it with weapons, especially in the south. By backing moderate rebels, Amman sought to maintain stability to stem the flow of refugees in southern Syria and sustain a buffer between the kingdom’s borders and IS fighters.

Several parliamentarians have warned against succumbing to what they believe to be Saudi pressure to join an allied land offensive. The government has never commented on such a possibility and was quick to refute reports that it was ready to open its borders for positioning Saudi troops to move into southern Syria. Jordanian forces are participating in multinational war games in Saudi Arabia this month and is a member of a 34-country Islamic military alliance that Riyadh formed in December.

Samih al-Ma’aytah, former minister of information, wrote Feb. 18 on Ammonnews.net, “Jordanians are growing anxious about the possibility of a land war in Syria.” He noted that many of the parties in Syria have their own agendas, stating, “We are surprised that some countries now want to fight IS although it has been in control of areas in Iraq and Syria for years.”

Ma’aytah stressed that Jordan had warned against the threat of IS from the start and is conducting its own strategy to combat it. “These countries want their own war for their own reasons, and we have our own war against terrorism, and the two should not be mixed,” Ma’aytah wrote.

The political commentator Orieb al-Rintawi agreed. He wrote Feb. 10 in Addustour that Jordan should not cave to “external pressures to join a land war in Syria,” asserting that being involved in “gambles outside our borders will prove to be a costly choice for Jordan.”

Rintawi also wondered whether Jordanian soldiers might end up fighting the Syrian army or engaging in confrontations against Hezbollah or Iranian militias. He said that Saudi Arabia’s proposal seeks to restore the military balance between the regime and the rebels, not to fight IS, emphasizing, “This is precisely why this is not our war.”

The cost to Jordan for resisting Saudi pressure could be high. In 1990, Jordan's King Hussein had declined to join the multinational coalition assembled to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and was punished for it financially and politically. The political commentator Hussein al-Rawashdeh is worried that Jordan now finds itself faced with “bad choices.” He told Al-Monitor that the situation today is as bad as it was in June 1967, when Jordan was dragged by Egypt into participating in the war against Israel.

According to Rawashdeh, if Amman rejects a Saudi request to open its borders for a land offensive, it will in essence be siding with Russia and the Assad regime. He said about Jordan, “Another choice is to maintain its positive neutrality and keep its lines open with all parties, as it did in the last five years, but will this be acceptable to others who are telling us that ‘you are either with us or against us’?”

Adib al-Sarayrah, a retired general, told Al-Monitor that it is unlikely that a regional land war will develop over Syria. That said, he further stated, “Jordan could be part of a coordinated military effort to fight IS by providing logistical support, training and military expertise.”

Sarayrah said that Jordan has well-trained special forces that “could carry out qualitative operations inside Syria.” Sarayrah believes that it is in Jordan’s interest to prevent militants from threatening its northern border and that only such a threat will force it to intervene militarily.

Abu Rumman thinks the Saudis' stated readiness to join a land campaign in Syria is “merely a tactic.” He told Al-Monitor that a joint Saudi-Turkish intervention in Syria would trigger a regional war and that Jordan would do well not to “slip into a military adventure in Syria.” He added, “For Jordan, the situation in southern Syria is a priority, and dealing with the changing military reality there is what we should be worrying about.”

Although there is no official reaction pointing toward the possibility of a regional land war in Syria, in the midst of the military and political escalation there, it is clear that public opinion in Jordan is overwhelmingly against any involvement in what many view as “not our war.”

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