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As al-Assad tightens grip on Syria’s south, Jordan rethinks rebel support

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an interview with the Russian NTV Channel in Damascus, Syria, on June 25, 2018. (Salampix/Abaca Press/TNS)

Standing on the edge of this once busy border crossing, you can glimpse the black, white and red of the Syrian flag across the no man’s land linking Jordan to Syria. Off to one side, a group of soldiers lounges around an entrenched tank, as army trucks kick up dust on a dirt track hugging the border.

It’s a novel sight: For more than three years, it was the opposition’s tricolor flag that flew over the arched entrance to Syria, and it was the rebels who patrolled the wheat-covered fields nearby.

But that was before a government blitz on the southern Syrian province of Dara this month pushed the rebels to the brink of surrender.

Although Jordan had long supported the rebels, the change is not entirely unwelcome.

This desert kingdom, long a conduit for the fighters and U.S.-supplied arms and ammunition that fueled the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, finds itself weary of the rebels and the long war.

Jordan has now launched a rapid rapprochement with Damascus, even as Syrian pro-government forces, backed by Russian warplanes, move to consolidate their grip over the country’s south.

“The presence of the Syrian army … is a positive step and serves Jordanian national security,” said Brig. Gen. Khaled Massaid, military commander of Jordan’s northern region, in an interview with the state-run Al Rai newspaper this month.

Echoing the rhetoric used by Damascus, which regularly describes the rebels as terrorists, Massaid said the Jordanian army had been forced to secure the border while it was in the hands of “terrorist organizations.” Jordanian officials and rebel commanders, however, said Massaid was referring to militant elements within the opposition, including fighters affiliated with al-Qaida and Islamic State, which still hold parts of Dara.

And in recent weeks, Jordan has restricted aid shipments from its territory into Syria pending approval of the Assad government, even as more than 230,000 people remain displaced in southwestern Syria, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday.

“Before, the (U.N.) Security Council had authorized cross-border aid to go through without Syrian government permission. But now it’s the Syrian government that’s on the other side of the border, so the whole mechanism is in question,” said an aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that one convoy had been waiting on the Jordanian side of the border since June 27.

Paramount in Jordan’s calculations is the Jaber-Nasib crossing, a vital passageway through which almost a fifth of the kingdom’s exports flowed before the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. When the Syrian region fell into rebel hands in 2015, it delivered yet another blow to Jordan’s reeling economy.

“We’re hoping matters will return to how they were in 2010 before the war,” said Odeh Rawashdeh, head of the Jordanian Farmers Union, in a phone interview earlier last week.

The Jaber-Nasib crossing, he said, had been the main artery for Jordanian produce heading to Lebanon, Turkey and Europe. Although merchants tried to circumvent the closure by sending their goods to the Jordanian port city of Aqaba as well as Israel’s Haifa, it was often too expensive and produce would often spoil in transit.

“There was no real alternative market. Iraq took a little bit … . gulf countries barely got anything from us,” said Rawashdeh.

Meanwhile, no fewer than 5,000 truckers are waiting to begin hauling goods through the crossing, said Mohammad Daoud, head of the Jordanian Truck Owners Association, in a phone interview Thursday.

“We’re expecting to start back-to-back transfer of goods at the crossing within 20 days,” said Daoud, explaining that goods would be trucked to the crossing before being transferred to vehicles driven by Syrian drivers on the other side.

“Jordanian drivers driving goods into Syria will happen in six or seven months,” he predicted.

The thaw in Amman’s relations with Damascus comes as the rebels suffered a symbolic defeat Thursday when government forces regained control of the city of Dara.

In what’s become a familiar scene across southern Syria, soldiers accompanied by Russian military police entered Dara, signaling the rebels’ acceptance of a reconciliation deal that would see them lay down their arms in exchange for a general amnesty and the return of state institutions. (Critics contend that the deals are little more than forced surrender, and that those who accept the amnesty are persecuted or forced to enlist in the army.)

With most of the southwestern province back in government hands, Damascus has now turned its sights to Quneitra province, home to rebels and the Khalid bin Walid Army, an Islamic State affiliate that holds a wedge of territory near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan.

“Dara city is now totally under the sovereignty of the Syrian state, under the symbol of the Syrian Arab Republic, our flag,” a reporter from the pro-government Ikhbariyah news channel said as the camera lingered on a large national flag hanging from a tower in Dara’s main square.

Yet the city represents more than just the heart of the rebel bastion that until last month stretched over two-thirds of the province; it was the birthplace of the uprisings against al-Assad.

That symbolism was not lost on the government: The Syrian flag has now been raised only yards from the Omari mosque, the site of the fledgling anti-government protests in March 2011 that morphed into a ruinous civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions and left large swaths of the country in ruins.

“The message was that this was where the revolution began, and here’s where it ended. That’s what the regime wanted to say,” pro-opposition activist Ibrahim Nour al Din said by phone Thursday.

Dara’s fall sounds the death knell for Western-backed opposition factions considered to be a palatable alternative to the hard-line jihadi groups that control the remaining rebel enclaves.

They had once been the top recipients of American, Saudi and Emirati support, with arsenals meant to punch a path to Damascus, the seat of al-Assad’s power.

But their offensive stalled in June 2015, and when Russia threw its support to al-Assad by joining the war four months later, they never regained their footing.

When a cease-fire brokered by Moscow, Amman and Washington in 2017 took hold, opposition backers saw little reason to continue their support.

“When the Americans withdrew, they took along with them the Saudis and the Emiratis,” said Rakan Khdeir, the commander of a Syrian tribal force trained and supplied by Jordan.

Khdeir, who is based in Amman, said Jordan has little choice now but to deal with Damascus as a “fact of life.”

“Jordan liked to help the rebels, but it was unable to do it on its own,” he said.

“If the Americans ran away, you can’t expect Jordan to stick around.”


© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.