Chill wind from Damascus
By Zvi Bar'el (Haaretz-18/4/2000)
"Suddenly the direction of the wind shifted: From a situation in which friendship was almost taken for granted, the Syrians changed their spots," explains a Jordanian official in response to a query about the chilly relations between Jordan and Syria.The day before, the Jordan Times had published a long article on signs of the new era in Jordanian-Syrian relations. According to the Jordanian newspaper, Syrian pilots have stopped greeting the Jordanian control tower when they pass over it; Syria unexpectedly, and without advance warning, replaced its charge d'affairs in Jordan and did not appoint a Syrian ambassador to Amman, as expected; telephone conversations between Bashar Assad and King Abdullah have become rare, some say stopped entirely; visits to Jordan by senior Syrian officials have virtually ceased; and most recently Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara did not stop over in Jordan after the summit between Presidents Hafez Assad and Bill Clinton. Shara promised his Jordanian counterpart, Abd al-Illa al-Hatib, that he would visit Jordan very soon, but no definite date has been set.
Jordanian officials find it very difficult to explain this shift. Formally, they say that there has been no change, and that it is only Kind Abdullah's and President Assad's busy schedules that prevent them from making as many joint public appearances as they did immediately after King Hussein's funeral in February 1999. At the time, it seemed that the relationship between the two countries was undergoing a revolution. After the ice age brought about by the signing of a Jordanian-Israeli peace accord, Assad's impressive show in Amman and the warm embrace he gave Abdullah served as clear proof of a shift in Syria's position.
Speculation then was that Syria was willing to swallow the private peace accord signed between Israel and Jordan so long as it could delay full normalization between the two countries until it had signed a peace agreement with Israel. "The logic behind this argument still holds. Syria has an interest in strengthening its ties with Jordan, if it wants Jordan to cooperate with it on relations with Israel," says the Jordanian official.
In reality, Jordan has been receiving its updates on the peace process from Israel, not Syria, and this week Abdullah received additional updates from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"What is annoying is that Jordan has been very instrumental in jumpstarting the Syrian-Israeli track. Senior Jordanian officials, including the head of Jordanian intelligence, visited Syria and Israel, and seemed to take control of the entire process. But now, all of a sudden, we have been cut off - and by the Syrians of all people," complains the Jordanian official.
Even the postponment of King Abdullah's trip to Israel did not impress the Syrians, despite being intended to demonstrate Jordanian solidarity with the Syrian demand for a halt to normalization steps following the Israeli bombardments inside Lebanon.
"Meanwhile, it seems that it's the normalization between Jordan and Syria that is being halted," said the official But while the chilly relations are treated with a certain degree of forgiveness in Jordan, the same cannot be said of Syria's intention to allow the Hamas leadership, expelled from Jordan, to open offices in Damascus. "This is intolerable," says the editor of a Jordanian newspaper. "Syria knows all too well what this means to Jordan. If Syria expects Jordanian solidarity on normalization, Jordan expects the same with regard to Hamas. It appears that Syria really believes Jordan expelled the Hamas activists as a favor to Israel, and does not recognize the danger they posed to Jordan itself. Their expulsion was in Jordan's own interest, and that was the only reason for it.
"If the Hamas leaders open an office in Syria, and the heads of the Jordanian Islamic movement begin visiting them there, suspicions will rise again that Syria is meddling in Jordan's internal affairs. That would be intolerable, especially after Syria has shown concern for Jordan's security needs, and even promised to allow the distribution of Jordanian newspapers in Syria, including those calling for support of the peace process. But none of these promises have been acted upon. Even the plan to allow Jordanians and Syrians to pass from one country to the other without special visas, just with passports or identity cards, has been frozen."
An accepted explanation for the new direction Syria has taken is that Assad has realized that he cannot control Jordan's policies and subject Abdullah to his will, turning the young king into some sort of diplomatic servant. "Possibly, Assad had thought that Jordan would play the Lebanese game," says a Jordanian analyst. But King Abdullah was quick to fill his father's shoes, and although some criticize him for his frequent trips abroad - even joking that "no airline would accept him in its frequent flyer program because it would lose too much" - there is much respect for his political abilities.
Abdullah survived the Hamas crisis relatively well, renewed and strengthened Jordan's ties with the Gulf states, and is constantly breathing fresh air into Jordan's economy. The results are not yet evident, the aid he has managed to collect in his trips is small compared to Jordan's needs and expectations, but Abdullah has managed to instill in his officials that he will not tolerate foot-dragging on the required economic changes. "In his busy schedule there is always enough time to meet another investor, another company director, another high-tech expert, at the expense of political activists or even tribal representatives."
Abdullah's growing confidence is enabling him to gradually replace the veteran, traditional leadership, such as Abd al-Karim Kabariti and Adnan Abu Uda, who, according to the king's associates, "tried to organize the court based on their own agendas."
The king himself said in an interview with the New York Times that he had decided to dismiss Kabariti, thereby refuting stories that he had himself asked to resign. As for Abu Uda, one of the most veteran and active public officials in Jordan, his resignation was accepted several hours before the king embarked on a trip to Scandinavia. Several months ago, Abu Uda published a book about Jordanian-Palestinian relations, stating that there is not yet full integration between Palestinian-Jordanians and "original Jordanians" and accusing the Jordanian public sector of discriminating against the Palestinians.
His position was criticized in the Jordanian parliament, some even claiming that Abu Uda was behind a U.S. human rights report critical of Jordan's discrimination of its Palestinian citizens. King Abdullah himself strives to present a show of unity and equality between the two segments of his population. Abu Uda's replacement was therefore part of the king's resolve to show that his view rules and anyone disagreeing with it had better find himself another job.
A strong Jordanian leader is not exactly what Assad's heart desires, even if he has no intention of resurrecting dreams of Syrian regional hegemony. "Assad usually seeks coalitions, and if he senses that an Arab leader is not willing to enter in a coalition with him, he begins to sulk," explains the Jordanian analyst. "That is how he acted toward Mubarak for a long time, that is how he acted with King Hussein, and maybe he now wishes to express his feelings toward Jordan in a similar manner.
"There is no doubt that Syria is important to us. Following the economic disappointment from the peace accord, it can be said that it is more important to us than Israel. And if one wishes to make comparisons, then Israel does not have an ambassador here either, just like the Syrians. But practically speaking, we understand that Syria is not the country that can move Jordan forward economically, or in any other aspect. For that, we are looking toward Europe and the United States. Our king speaks better English than Arabic, and if he succeeds in his economic policy, we will have a prosperous country. Syria will be left behind."
Last week a Turkish Air Force pilot, training in Jordan, was killed there. This is part of a triangle no one dares refer to by its explicit name, but is known as the strategic cooperation between Turkey, Jordan and Israel. Jordan is not yet ready for joint military exercises with Israel, despite U.S. urging, but a partnership with Turkey is another matter. The economic accords signed between Turkey and Jordan have also not escaped Syria's eyes.
"It is safe to assume that this relationship also angers Syria, which has yet to calm down from the strategic pact made between Israel and Turkey, and the economic accords signed and expected to be signed between Egypt and Turkey. Syria sees Israel's mark in all these, and anyone cooperating with Israel is not worthy of Syria's friendship.