Can Jordan-Syria thaw bring stability?

Jordan, long the Arab country with the warmest peace with Israel - and a key player in past and any future progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace - finds itself tilting toward a harder line under new leadership.

Consider signs of a rapprochement with Syria, among Israel's staunchest opponents and a country with its own long land dispute with the Jewish state.

Relations have been tense for years, over a host of differences that turned public when Jordan signed its peace deal with Israel in 1994. Only last fall, Syrian defense chief Mustafa Tlass claimed that the royal family was trying to "Judaize" the country, suggesting that Jordan's existence at all was a quirk of British colonial fate.

But then, just before King Abdullah - son of the late King Hussein - assumed the throne in February, Syria's President Hafez al-Assad himself appeared at the monarch's funeral to personally usher in a rebirth of closer ties.

Abdullah repaid the kindness this week during a two-day visit to Damascus.

Jordan's fresh high-level attention to its Arab neighbors, and its decidedly cool posture toward Israel at the moment, analysts say, is part of new strategy to re-root Jordan in the Arab camp, and to take advantage of fence-mending opportunities provided by the first of the Mideast's next generation of leaders.

Abdullah has travelled widely in recent weeks, to a host of Gulf states - which soured on Jordan in 1991, when King Hussein was seen to be too close to Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War - and as far afield as Libya.

"Ironically, bilateral ties with Syria are not the top priority - the Gulf states are - but politically the symbolism is very significant," says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian analyst and writer. New leadership in Amman, and a probable change of rulers in Syria, he says, has led "the old guard in Syria to get on the road [with Jordan] of tolerance and mutual respect for our differences."

THE root problem has been Jordan's plunge into peace with Israel, even as Israel and Syria were still engaged in their own peace talks.

Israel stopped the Syria track in February 1996, and the hard-line policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the past three years have made the possibility of a resumption remote. In the runup to May 17 elections in Israel, however, overtures to Syria from the Israeli government have been reported.

Jordan has made clear that its decision to sign a peace accord with the Jewish state was a strategic move and will not be compromised in any way.

But the new king is also reported here to be slowing the pace of normalization with Israel. Assad's visit to Amman has been taken as a signal that Syria is still interested in the peace process, but Jordanian television has quoted officials as saying that Abdullah and Assad hold "identical views" on the subject of the Mideast peace process.

"This rapprochement is very timely, and good for Arab solidarity, which is the only Arab weapon to battle the intransigence and stubbornness of Israel," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at the University of Damascus.

Still, even that issue may ease in the new climate. "There was a certain point of deep misunderstanding with Syria over the speed of normalization," says Mr. Shukri.

But Syria made up with Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, and now Syria will be able to use both countries as "channels to the outside."

An editorial in the Jordan Times Thursday applauded the shift: "By emphasizing Jordan's Arab roots and links with the Arab world as a centerpiece of Jordan's future strategy, the king is making it loud and clear where his kingdom's interests lie."

Jordan-Syria ties have ebbed and flowed for decades. At their peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were moves to integrate everything from electricity grids to school textbooks.

But also at stake now may be mutual national pride. "Part of it is a mutual game of footsies, with Jordan, Syria, and Egypt vying symbolically for leadership of the Arab world," says Mr. Khouri, "and who is most important for the Americans to talk to."

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