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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Josef Olmert: Syria, Jordan and Israel

“It is Syria, not the Palestinians, which matter most to Abdullah and the Israelis in this particular point in time”

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The Syrian civil war has already led to the actual break up of the Syrian state as we have known it until now. The Kurds already control most of North-East Syria, the Druze are in charge of most of the South, the Alawites in control of their enclave in the North-West and the rebel-held territories are dominated by various local forces, which lack a real unified political and military control, despite the existence of the Free Syrian Army and the political coalition based outside of Syria. The current map of the country is therefore deceiving; no more one united Syria, much the same as it was in Lebanon after 1976.

With that happening, the domestic crisis is becoming a regional issue, and Patrick Seale’s old theory about Syria being in the center of Pan-Arab relations will prove right, though in a different way than the classic book describing Arab politics in the 1940’s and 1950’s, mainly because the regional players are different (Patrick Seale, The Struggle For Syria; A Study In Post-War Arab Politics; 1945-1958). What is in common is that Syria is central only when it is weak, in fact, when it is engulfed in a situation of major internal disarray. In the period described by Seale, it was largely a political crisis, now it is political, military and sectarian. In short, a truly chaotic situation. A failing state in actual terms, though not formally so.

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The Assad regime tried for over 40 years to turn Syria into a major regional player due to its internal stability, so long as it existed. They failed to do so because of the basic economic weaknesses of the state coupled with suspicion towards the sectarian, non-Sunni character of the regime. When internally strong, Syria was a power to reckon with in Lebanon in particular, but when internally weak, the country could be a challenge to regional stability beyond its borders and not only in Lebanon. The Syria-Jordan-Israel triangle is a case in mind.

The Assads have traditionally had an ambiguous, almost schizophrenic attitude towards Jordan. In times of crisis between the two states, such as during Black September 1970, and later in November 1980, and on other subsequent occasions, the Ba’athists in Damascus were at pains to remind the Hashimites in Amman, that their state was, in fact, an artificial entity, having been carved out by Western machinations from the great Syrian homeland.

When the relations warmed up on the other hand, all this was stored in the back burner, waiting to be used when needed. The Syrians and Jordanians had their differences over the Palestinian issue, the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, the Saddam Hussein invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1994.

In the background there was the water problem, the use of the Jordan and Yarmuk waters, so important to these chronically –thirsty countries. The first water agreement between the two countries, concerning the utilization of the Yarmuk River, was signed back in 4 June 1953, but the letters of the agreement were never enough to resolve frequent disagreements, and dealing with water is where Israel was also drawn into the picture, though not anymore, as Israel resolved its water predicament due to the coming into effect of the desalination installations.

In fact, as of the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty, Israel is a supplier of water to Jordan. But for three decades, from the 1960’s onwards, Syrian-Jordanian tensions over water had the potential of dragging Israel into the fray. And so it is now, though the immediate trigger is not water.

In recent weeks, the Syrian rebels all but wiped out Syrian army presence in large parts of the Syrian Golan, close to the borders of Israel and Jordan. UN peacekeepers from UNDOF have told the Israeli press that the Syrian Golan is in a state of complete turmoil. In fact, the rebels there are a mixture of elements loyal to the Free Syrian Army but also to Jabhat Al-Nusra (the victory front), a pro-Al-Qaida militia.

So, after 4 decades of almost total tranquility along the Israeli-Syrian border, there are now local forces there, whose raison d’être will be to cause troubles and provocations along the border as part of the overall Jihad against Israel. Not a prospect that can make the Israelis complacent, and they are not. Signs of nervousness are already detected on the Israeli side of the border, also because of the possibility of an influx of Syrian refugees crossing to be treated by the ‘’Zionists’’, rather than being slaughtered by their ‘’brothers’’.

The IDF already established a field hospital near the border. Also the Jordanians have to deal with a refugee problem, though on a grander scale. Already over 100,000 refugees crossed from Syria , and the stream is unabated. King Abdullah cannot be happy about the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Damascus, as he confronts his own Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi influence on the rebels could mitigate the ill effects of an Islamic regime in Damascus, but King Abdullah is worried, very worried. Being worried is a normal state of affairs for the King, but when it leads to a change of policy, it indicates the severity of the problem.

While not admitting as much, the King has recently changed the tone towards Israel and P.M Netanyahu personally. After attacking him almost relentlessly, the King surprisingly referred to his ‘’strong’’ understandings with Netanyahu. One is left to wonder what is the basis for this statement.

It is Syria, not the Palestinians, which matter most to Abdullah and the Israelis in this particular point in time. Be it the chemical weapons, or the Al-Qaida influence over the rebels, or the overall fear about a regional eruption caused by the Syrian disintegration.

Diplomacy is also about seizing opportunities, and in the Syrian-Israeli-Jordanian triangle, an opportunity was opened for Israel and Jordan to close ranks. Not a honeymoon, but still an element of some reassurance at a time of great uncertainty. Not a mean feat.

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