Friday, 24 June 2016

Water reaches Syrian refugees after Jordan border closure

 'Syrian refugees stranded in the desert along the border with Jordan lined up for water Thursday, two days after Jordan sealed off their two encampments in response to a deadly attack on its troops in the area. The two tent camps house about 64,000 Syrians who fled a five-year-old civil war and are waiting to be admitted to Jordan. Many have been stranded in the desert for months. Before the border closure, the refugees received food and water from Jordan-based international aid agencies. Refugees would climb over an earthen mound, or berm, that roughly delineates the border, and pick up supplies on the Jordanian side. Earlier this month, aid groups said Jordan agreed to expand the distributions on its soil, near the berm.

 Such plans were frozen after Tuesday’s attack killed six Jordanian troops and wounded 14. There has been no claim of responsibility, but Jordan says it has evidence of a significant presence of the extremist Islamic State group in the camps. Jordan has sealed the border area and signaled that aid groups will have to find alternatives to sending supplies from Jordan.

“It’s a closed area,” said government spokesman Mohammed Momani. “Yet it does not mean that international organizations cannot find different ways and means to get aid to the people there.” '

 Jordan's Pragmatism in Syria

'In early 2015, however, the Syrian regime's critical lack of manpower began to show. Assad's forces in the north were defeated on multiple fronts by a coalition of Salafist rebels that included Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's Syrian branch. The trend was paralleled in the south, where the Southern Front--at times with the force-multiplier of Nusra's suicide tactics--took much of the countryside around the provincial capital of Dara'a, including the economically vital Naseeb border crossing that connects Damascus to Jordan and the markets of the Gulf. At this, Jordanian policy makers had reason to worry, as the closure of the highway cut overland shipping to markets as distant as Russia. Even more problematic was the Southern Front's failed attempt to storm Dara'a City against the advice of their Jordanian advisers and Western paymasters. The debacle of Operation "Southern Storm" in summer 2015 proved an embarrassment but did little to dent the growing international enthusiasm for the Southern Front as the only palatable force that could take the fight to Assad.
 When Russian intervention in October 2015 checked the opposition's momentum across Syria, Jordan was quick to view the new dynamic as an opportunity rather than a threat. High-level visits to Moscow by the King and the Jordanian chief of staff set a cooperative tone. Indeed, such visits may have empowered a silent majority of top Jordanian ministers and security officials to act on longstanding agnostic--and, in some cases, positive--attitudes toward the Assad regime by encouraging further contacts.

 In short order, a covert cell of Russian and Jordanian officials was reportedly established in Amman to guide the Russian air campaign in Syria's south. Under Russian air cover, pro-regime forces made grinding progress, conquering the strategic crossroads at Sheikh Miskeen in January 2016 and securing their hold over the majority of Dara'a City. Politically, battlefield advances brought deepened contact between the Assad regime and Jordanian government. (These ties had never been completely severed, and regime personnel have continuously staffed the Syrian embassy in Amman.) Multiple reports of Ali Mamlouk's, one of Assad's top security advisers and enforcers, visiting Amman to discuss southern Syria have surfaced in Jordanian media and in the Amman rumor mill. These visits fueled speculation that Jordan was preparing to cut a deal to hand parts of Dara'a province back to the regime. The Southern Front likely believed that it was being sold out.

 And it was--to a degree. The King and his security advisers were demonstrating that their interests, not their alliances, were fixed. As the Southern Front became less able to play the role of buffer in the south, Jordan had no ideological qualms about keeping channels open with the party that might replace it. Tellingly, Jordanian officials were quiet about the Russian bombing of its proxies; it later emerged that Russia had informed Jordan early on of its intention to scale back its operational tempo once the regime's position was stable. This is not to say that Jordan cast its opposition proxies aside. They remained preferable to the grim alternatives of jihadist factions such as Harakat al-Muthanna and the (formerly Southern Front but now ISIS-affiliated) Liwa' Shuhada'a al-Yarmouk. Rather, Jordan made clear that it had other options, and its proxies would therefore have to toe the line.

 And they have obeyed. The Southern Front has ceased offensive operations against the regime and is focused on consolidating its areas of control in the Dara'a countryside while combating ISIS inroads. There is little talk now within the Southern Front of being a "revolutionary" force. Senior figures in the group have quietly accommodated themselves to major elements of the Assad regime that would remain in place in a future settlement. This outlook is echoed on the ground, with foot soldiers having concluded that the fight is futile. Particularly in the wake of last summer's failed effort to reclaim Dara'a City, many fighters have fled abroad rather than continue to fight the regime. Those who remain, despite Southern Front messaging, are divided among themselves according to village and tribe and are unlikely, now or in the near future, to mount the type of coordinated offensive being dreamed up in Western think tanks. Some kind of de facto reconciliation with the regime appears plausible in the not-too-distant future--exactly, it is likely, as Jordan hopes.

 At this juncture, there is something of a tacit convergence of Jordanian and U.S. interests in Syria. Both U.S. and Jordanian policy makers are constrained by public opinion. Both have reason to doubt that even massive amounts of arms can unify the fractious Syrian opposition and that, even were this possible, Assad's removal would pave the way for the emergence of moderate forces. As one top Jordanian policy maker put it, both "saw a stalemate coming" from the very beginning. This is not quite correct, at least as a characterization of views in Washington in 2011, but it contains more than a grain of truth in 2016. What is undeniably true is that Jordan, once again, has figured out how to pantomime collaboration while carefully protecting the interests that these whims would undermine.'

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