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Jordan seeks closer coordination with Russia over Syria

The Hashemite Kingdom is one of the US's closest allies in the region, but has continued to engage with Moscow despite war in Ukraine
Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi receives his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in the capital Amman, on 3 November 2022 (AFP)

Russia and Jordan agreed to ramp up coordination on Syria during a visit Thursday by Russia’s top diplomat to the Hashemite Kingdom, underscoring how even one of the US’s closest allies in the region has continued to engage with Russia despite the war in Ukraine.

Syria is a top concern for the resource-poor kingdom, whose budget has been strained by hosting more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees. Jordan has also warned about the presence of Iranian-backed militias along its border, which has recently seen an upsurge in drug smuggling.

"There is a need for coordination and this is the focus of expansive discussions,” Ayman al-Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, said at a news conference alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and added: in order to "neutralise the potential dangers of instability" in southern Syria.

'Russia stabilising Syria'

Lavrov met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the two discussed efforts to reach a political solution to the crisis in Syria, while safeguarding the war-torn country’s unity and territorial integrity, and guaranteeing the safe and voluntary return of refugees, according to state media. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not mentioned in the press readout.

Jordan is a stalwart US ally and heavily dependent on Washington for aid. In September, the US granted Jordan its largest aid package in history with $10.15bn in assistance slated for the next seven years. The kingdom is home to US military bases and a key staging ground for counter-terrorism operations.

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Like other regional states, however, Jordan has walked a careful line over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, continuing to engage with the Kremlin while it has been shunned by most western powers.

During a visit to Washington in September, Safadi said "there are many issues with which we still need to engage with Russia”.

"The truth is [the] Russian presence in Syria has been a stabilising factor in the south because the vacuum would be filled by militias and other groups that will not be able to ensure stability in those places," he said.

'Shoot anyone' near the border

Syria’s neighbours are concerned that Russia’s losses in Ukraine could prompt Moscow to draw down in Syria, where it intervened in 2015, turning the tide of the Syrian war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad.

In May, King Abdullah said that Russia’s presence in southern Syria was a “source of calm” and warned that Iran and its proxies would fill any void left by its departure. “Unfortunately we’re looking at maybe an escalation of problems on our borders,” he said.

Those concerns have also prompted Turkey to re-engage with the Assad government. According to Reuters, Turkey's intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, has held multiple meetings with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus this year, with the aim of setting up a potential meeting between the two countries' foreign ministers.

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Last year, King Abdullah held a rare phone call with Assad. Jordan has hoped that normalising ties with Damascus will help them address a surge in drugs crossing its border. The number of captagon pills seized by Jordan is on track to double this year compared with 2021, with drug abuse ticking up in the kingdom.

Syria has emerged as the main producer of the amphetamine-like drug.

The stimulant, formerly associated with the militants of the Islamic State group, has given birth to an illegal industry of more than 10 billion dollars, which analysts say is a key source of revenue for Assad.

According to unnamed regional intelligence sources cited by Reuters, Moscow has in recent months stepped up military police patrols along the Syrian side of the border to reassure Jordan that it will not allow Iran-backed militias to gain a foothold at its doorstep.

The surge in drugs prompted Jordan earlier this year to change its rules of engagement, declaring a buffer zone on its border with Syria and instructions from military brass “[to ]shoot anyone who dares to come close to the Jordanian borders”.

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