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Questions about the southern front and the ‘safe zone’

Image of Iraqi Kurds at the Turkish border [file photo]
Iraqi Kurds at the Turkish border [file photo]

There are a number of indicators on the horizon of the southern front which drive us to believe that they will move from the stage of traveling skirmishes to the phase of major confrontations. They may even reach the point of resolving the terrorist organisations, in all their names, Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Army which has pledged allegiance to Al-Baghdadi. The news from the Al-Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq is only the first area that will soon fall apart.

Regionally, Jordan plays the role of a major player on the front, at least from Dara’a to the Iraqi border, where pro-Jordanian armed factions are deployed. Jordan has influence over some of these factions, which has allowed it to convince them to participate in the Astana and Geneva processes. However, the more we move towards the west, the more we see the influence of another player, Israel, which has working relations with other armed factions, including Al-Nusra Front. Tel Aviv sees this group as the enemy of its archenemy, i.e. Hezbollah, and deal with it as a “frenemy”, a status between an enemy and a friend.

Not too far from this area, Tehran maintains its connection with the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah. In an interview with the Washington Post, King Abdullah II estimated that they were stationed 70 kilometres from the border, adding that they were a concern to Jordan and Israel, and that understandings with Russia were reached in order to contain the situation and avoiding sliding into undesirable situations. Do these understandings still apply given the heated confrontational language between Moscow and Washington and the change in the rules in Syria?

Jordan is most worried that the post-Mosul/Tal-Afar phase in Iraq and the post- Raqqah/Deir ez-Zor phase in Syria will push Daesh south, making the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian steppes, reaching the Saudi steppe, an arena for the remnants of Daesh, where they can gather in its valleys and caves and use it as a base to target these countries. Perhaps the terrorist group has ideas and dreams of penetrating the Jordanian border, especially after Daesh’s wave of threats directed at Jordan and the state of desperation growing within the organisation after it lost most of the territories it gained control of.

Read: Israel seeks buffer zone on borders with Syria

There is no doubt that during the king’s visit to Washington, and his meetings with Donald Trump, especially with Defence Secretary General James Matiss, as well as his meetings in Amman with British Prime Minister Theresa May, he discussed the scenarios for the “southern issue”. The two allies of Jordan, along with Russia, are considered the most important international players on the southern front. One might say that Britain, which does not play a significant role in the fields of the Syrian crisis, plays a more important role on this axis/front.

After the Khan Shaykhun crime and the American missile strike on the Shayrat Air Base there has been increased interest in the concepts of safe zones. The tendencies to translate this project by coercive means if need be have grown after having been closed before the crime and attack.

However, today, given the atmosphere of international escalation, the safe zones are back to having a confrontational aspect, and are not consensual by any means, at least not in the near future, as everything in Syria and around it changes overnight.

A coordinated operation in the framework of the international alliance may succeed in achieving a breakthrough on the southern front. This may push Daesh back or even end its presence in the eastern steppe, and the operations may even develop in the Yarmouk Basin in a manner that eliminates the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Army and the Al-Nusra Front. However, this does not prevent the flood of questions from flowing; questions that must be considered and pondered.

Read: Jordan’s back is against the wall

This starts with the question: What about the Russian role and the potential clash with Moscow and its allies? Who will fill the vacuum left by Daesh and the terrorist groups in these areas? It also includes questions such as who will protect these areas, how and with what forces? What are the limits of Jordan’s military intervention? Will it be limited to artillery and air support and special operations, or will it find itself forced to get involved in the Syrian sands?

What if this area, and the forces involved in maintaining its security, engage in battles to exhaust the Syrian army and its allies; can we imagine a scenario of clashes between the Jordanian and Syrian armies, even within narrow tactical limits? What if the pro-regime groups, including Hezbollah, waged guerrilla-style exhaustion battles against the forces controlling this area?

The questions that will then emerge are: What about the closed Jordanian border with Syria, which Jordan had hoped to open within a matter of months, and perhaps at the beginning or end of next summer? Is there hope to open this border if the developments go in this direction?

Is it possible to open the border with a “safe zone” that, before the crime and strike, was called “temporary stable areas”? Does anyone expect the regime to open its borders with this area in which it has no presence? What is the economic and commercial value of having open borders with a tight border strip and what is the value of this strip in terms of the refugee crisis, which is considered one of the pressing security, social and economic priorities for Jordan?

The flood of questions does not stop here, as the question of the connection between the safe zones that Jordan wants and the safe zones planned by Israel arises. They discussed these safe zones numerous times, but a final decision has not yet been made. Will they be in one area or two separate areas, and how can they be separated if the local forces that will manage them and maintain their security are almost the same, or at least of the same fabric. What are the consequences on Jordan’s security and stability if the idea of one area is considered, or if the two areas were open to each other?

The scene seems very complicated, even assuming that all these options will occur with minimal losses to Jordan. What if the domain of confrontation expands, making north Jordan, or even some of it, one of the battlefields, as is the case with the Yemeni-Saudi border front?

In the light of all these facts, we must go back to thinking about the political options, including the involvement of Russia in any endeavour on the southern front. When we say Russia, we mean the entire axis, via the Russian portal, as was the case before the crime and the strike. Otherwise, we cannot determine the consequences and effects of any scenario, especially for Jordan, which, for the first time in six years, is this close to the battlefields, both literally and metaphorically.

Translated from The New Khalij, 12 April 2017.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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