Jordan is putting pressure on Syrian rebel groups in southern Syria to hand over the Nasib border crossing in Daraa province to the Syrian army, according to various news sources. The London-based Asharq Al-Awsat daily reported Sept. 27 that meetings had taken place in Amman in mid-September between Jordanian officials, representatives of Syrian opposition groups and the local council in Daraa to reach an agreement that would lead to the reopening of the Nasib border crossing with Jordan.
The kingdom closed its side of the border crossing in Jaber when Nasib fell to rebel groups in May 2015. The paper said the Syrian government had made suggestions to Jordan’s Foreign Ministry regarding the reopening of borders between the two countries under which Syrian government officials would operate the Nasib crossing “just as they did before March 2011,” when the Syrian uprising erupted.
There has been no official acknowledgment by Amman about meeting details. But on Oct. 1, a number of news sites reported that the National Front for the Liberation of Syria, a group belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), had rejected a proposal to reopen the border crossing with Jordan under Syrian government administration. A spokesman for the group, Abu Jasem Al-Hariri, was quoted as saying that the border crossing will remain closed until “detainees in regime prisons are released and all displaced people from Daraa are repatriated.”
A statement released Sept. 30 by civil and military groups that met in al-Nueima in Daraa rejected any truce with the Syrian regime and reiterated the groups’ commitment to “the principles of the Syrian uprising.” It also called for the release of Syrians in regime prisons and for management of Nasib to be handed over to a civil authority belonging to the so-called Free Daara Provincial Council.
But Jordan, which had supported a number of FSA affiliated groups, reportedly rejected these demands. The official Jordanian position is that borders will reopen only when the Syrian government retakes control of Nasib. Jordan’s King Abdullah told the official news agency Petra on Sept. 14 that while he was “deeply concerned” with the situation in southern Syria, Jordan’s border with Syria would reopen only “when the right security conditions materialize on the ground.”
But on Sept. 29, the Doha-based Al Jazeera reported that Jordan had asked the armed Syrian opposition to change the function of the FSA in the province to a police force and civil defense entity. The Jordanian proposal was reportedly rejected.
Other news sources reported that Jordan had threatened to close humanitarian corridors between northern Jordan and southern Syria unless the Syrian opposition agrees to Amman’s demands. Russia’s RT news agency pointed to a report by the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan on Oct. 3 that said a force belonging to the National Front for the Liberation of Syria had bolstered its presence at Nasib. According to the same newspaper, the Syrian opposition in the province is divided between those who reject any handover of Nasib to the Syrian government and those who support it, provided that it leads to national reconciliation.
On Oct. 3, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that Jordan had given the Syrian opposition 10 days to respond or that it would carry out a threat to close all humanitarian corridors to southern Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian army has been securing border posts along the 370-kilometer (230-mile) border with Jordan. Raialyoum.com reported Oct. 3 that the Syrian army had taken five more border posts after having reclaimed nine others a few days earlier.
But Jordan is also calling on Moscow to ensure the safety of moderate rebel groups in southern Syria who are fighting Islamist extremists. On Oct. 2, a report by The Associated Press said Jordan has been urging Syria and Russia to ensure the safety of several thousand fighters belonging to the Eastern Lions and the Martyr Ahmed al-Abdo group. Both groups are being pushed back by advancing government troops, the news agency reported.
For Jordan, the reopening of borders with Syria carries economic and political benefits that could take advantage of the agreement between Jordan, Russia and the United States to create a de-escalation zone in southern Syria. The agreement was implemented July 15. Until its closure, the Nasib border crossing was Jordan’s only overland gateway to Lebanon, Turkey and Europe. A joint Syrian-Jordanian free-trade zone near the border — now closed — was an important industrial and commercial hub for bilateral trade, handling $1.5 billion worth of goods annually. Furthermore, reopening the border would signal the beginning of normalization of relations between Amman and Damascus and would prepare the ground for the repatriation of over half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan, most of whom come from southern Syria. Human Rights Watch accused Jordan on Oct. 2 of summarily deporting Syrian refugees, which Amman has denied.
Political analyst Fahd al-Khitan told Al-Monitor that reopening borders will take some time because of security and technical preconditions. “The Nasib crossing is in ruins and needs to be rebuilt, and the security situation on the other side remains vague,” he said. “I think an agreement will be reached eventually, but I can say that official negotiations have not started yet,” he added.
In turn, retired Jordanian general and military analyst Fayez al-Duwairi told Al-Monitor that the future of the border crossing “will be determined by the military reality on the ground.” He said the security dimension is more important for Jordan than the economic one. “Under the [trilateral de-escalation agreement of July] Shiite militias were supposed to pull back 40 kilometers [25 miles] from our borders, but that did not happen,” Duwairi said. “They are still within 16 kilometers [10 miles] from our borders, so the highway to Damascus is not secure. Circumstances that allow for the reopening of the crossing are not ripe yet,” he added.
Political columnist Maher Abu Tair said Jordan’s priorities in southern Syria have changed. Writing in Ad-Dustour daily Oct. 1, he said the FSA position is changing because Jordan wants a quick end to the Syrian crisis within a regional and an international framework and because the Hashemite kingdom wants Syrian refugees to return to their country as soon as possible. “It looks like Jordan and the Syrian regime see eye to eye on what should happen in southern Syria,” Abu Tair said. “And that means that Jordan is using its influence to overcome security challenges in southern Syria, which is a Jordanian interest first and foremost.”
Underlining Jordan’s growing concern with the burden of hosting refugees, Abdullah told Senate members Oct. 5, “We cannot continue to make [Jordanian citizens] shoulder the costs of hosting refugees.” He also said, “It is not easy for a country to pay the equivalent of a quarter of its state budget to support refugees,” adding, “Next year would witness recovery from the repercussions of regional developments, including the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis and the closure of export markets.”