A+ A-
Interactions between Russia and Jordan in the Middle East

This working paper by Dr. Elena Melkumyan, Professor for the Department of Oriental Studies in the Russian State University for Humanities, was presented at the conference, "Jordan in a Changing Regional Environment: Scenarios for the Next Phase" - organized by Al- Quds Center for Political Studies from 4-6 November 2017 in Amman, Jordan, at the Royal Amman Hotel.

The paper discusses Jordan as a consistent partner to Russian in the Middle East region. It acknowledges that Jordan is not the most important for Russian strategic interests, stating that the countries do, however, have historically good relations, which were characterized by Russian leaders as, "Friendly and based on common interests.”

The paper affirms that official visits of the high representatives of both states have been frequent and occur on all levels – visits by the heads of states include Putin’s visit in 2012, and the visits of King Abdullah II, the last of which was in January 2017. Permanent contact has also been maintained between Ministers of Foreign Affair ‒ Sergey Lavrov and Ayman Safadi. In the current circumstances, Amman and Moscow need each other politically and militarily, rather than as economic partners.

The agenda of the bilateral relationship of the countries has been mostly limited to political dialogue and very modest trade deals (the contribution of Jordan to Russian foreign trade in 2016 consisted of only 0.0373%). However, talks on defense cooperation have been notable. Since 2000, Moscow and Amman have signed a number of arms deals, including on Igla portable air defense system and Kornet anti-tank system. Additionally, Russia and Jordan are eager to implement economic agreements, including joint projects in energy, as well as agreements to develop tourism, and cultural and humanitarian exchanges.

The Middle East Peace Process has always been in the agenda of Russian-Jordanian negotiations. Both countries have similar positions in this area, confirming their unwavering commitment to the two-state-solution to the Palestinian issue under a universally recognized international legal framework, including the Arab Peace Initiative, and the need to launch sustainable Israeli-Palestinian talks without delay.

Russia and Jordan have agreed to bolster cooperation to fight against terrorism. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after talks with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Al Safadi: “We have agreed to boost coordination in the fight against terrorism and extremism, and moreover Jordan and Russia have a common understanding as to how this must be done, without any ambiguity, without double standards, and without attempts to use anti-extremist-fight slogans for interference in internal affairs of sovereign states, and such attempts shall take place.”

The conflict in Syria created a whole new context for the relations between Russia and Jordan. Despite differences in their goals and positions, Russia and Jordan have a shared desire to stop the bloodshed in Syria, settle humanitarian problems and launch the process of a political settlement in line with the UN Security Council resolution. They also have consensus on a need to comply with Security Council demands to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and to give the Syrian people a possibility to themselves shape the future of their country.

Jordan’s King Abdullah said in an interview with the Washington Post in October 2017 that they would compromise with Russia on Crimea to get its help in Syria. For Russia, this Jordanian position was very important. For Jordan the crisis in Syria was especially dangerous, due to the fact that the kingdom shares a border of more than 385 kilometers with Syria. For Russian leaders, the fact that Jordan was one of the few Arab states that refused to cut its diplomatic ties with Syria was very significant. Jordan did not close the Syrian Embassy in Amman, taking into account “the special and unique ties between the people of both countries.” Unlike other regional players, Jordan never called for Assad’s removal as a condition to ending the crisis. That decision was left to the Syrian people. Amman has chosen to follow an independent course and has adjusted its position in response to developing geopolitical realities. However, the fundamentals of that policy have remained firm and unchanged: Jordan has always insisted on preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, while calling for a political resolution to the crisis. Russia highly appreciated this Jordanian line in the Syrian crises.

In September 2015, the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament authorized the Russian President to use armed forces in Syria. Russia acknowledged that Russian strikes targeted not only ISIS, but also rebel groups like ـJabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch and other terrorist organizations. At that time an estimated 2,500 Russian nationals were fighting alongside ISIS and President Putin declared that their return to Russia would be a threat to Russia, and that it would be better to fight them on Syrian ground.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis constitutes a new strategic paradigm in the Middle East and the international arena. This will have significant implications for the balance of power and the rivalries in Syria's civil war, and for the struggle between the superpowers for global influence. The Russian move, executed under the guise of fighting the Islamic State, is intended to advance Russia's global aspirations and advance its effort to be among the most influential powers in the international arena. Russia, which was supporting its ally President Bashar Assad, has rejected Western calls for Assad to step down, saying Syria’s leadership can only be decided by the Syrian people via elections. In these circumstances the role of Jordan became very important for Russian plans in Syria. In May 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that participants at talks in Vienna on Syria have agreed that Jordan will coordinate efforts to compile a common list of terrorist groups in Syria.

In the beginning of 2016, Jordan set up a military center with Russia to carry out coordinated anti-Islamic State military operations in Syria. The military of the two countries have agreed to coordinate their actions through a working mechanism in Amman. The Kingdom already hosts a joint war room north of Amman, called the US Central Command Forward-Jordan, as part of a lineup with the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Jordan stayed in the US-led anti-IS coalition and showing allegiance to the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition also known as the Islamic Military Alliance. But, following the launch of the Russian military campaign in Syria, the two countries set up an intelligence-sharing channel to help them coordinate in Syria, including military aircraft missions over Syria.

Russia and Jordan consistently cooperate on airline security, exchanging intelligence including information on people suspected of having ties to extremists who could pose a threat. What’s more, the two appear to have cooperated on ground operations. At the same time, Russia and Jordan have some contradictions in Syria. Intensifying jihadist activity in southwestern Syria as well as the potential migration of IS fighters toward the Jordanian border have stimulated the buildup of American and British forces in northern Jordan. A joint operation between Jordan, United Kingdom and USA in southern Syria was cause for serious concern in Moscow, as the action could put the Assad government in danger and could create a new front against Iranian forces in Syria. However, given the absence of real dialogue between the United States and Russia on Syria, Jordan plays an important role in communicating between Russians and Americans. In July 2017 The United States, Russia and Jordan agreed to foster a cease-fire in a limited area of southwestern Syria. The agreement came after months of negotiations among the three countries.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that the cease-fire “would take effect in the areas of Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida, in Syria along the Jordanian border.” He stated that, “At first, security around this de-escalation zone will be guaranteed by the forces and means of the Russian military police, in coordination with the Americans and Jordanians.”

In September 2017 Jordan revealed that it was working with Russia to roll out a plan to end fighting in southwestern Syria “in the fastest possible time” ‒ part of a peace pact for the border area brokered by Amman, Moscow and Washington. Jordan and Russia’s foreign ministers met in Amman to discuss progress in setting up a “de-escalation zone” in the particularly sensitive region that includes Syrian territory neighboring Israel. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov declared, “We expressed our support to resolve all issues relating to the de-escalation zones’ performance.” His Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi confirmed it. Two senior diplomats also gave the information that the powers have made progress in drawing up a map of the de-escalation zone.

Moscow also pressed Jordan to re-open its Nasib border crossing with Syria, something Amman has so far resisted, saying it needs more security. But it has strongly backed the broader de-escalation deal, seeing it as paving the way for an eventual return of tens of thousands of refugees in its territory. Given Russia’s current polarizing role in the Middle East, Jordan, with whom Moscow enjoys a highly pragmatic relationship, was seen as a potential mediator between Russia and the Arab world, because Russia has contradictions with some Arab states, concerning the ruling regime of Assad in Syria.

Russia’s decision to include Jordan in Syrian peace negotiations in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, shows Moscow’s growing realization that Arab support for its diplomatic efforts was very important. Representatives of the Syrian government and opposition groups met in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, in January 2017. The Astana talks paralleled the UN-brokered Geneva dialogues to find a resolution on Syria. This was the additional tool which helped groups to reach some technical agreement to lay the groundwork for further negotiations. Talks in Astana were brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran with the attendance of experts from the United States, Jordan and the UN. Russia, Turkey and Iran released a joint declaration to become guarantors of the ceasefire between the Syrian government and the opposition groups. The Astana process has led to progress in negotiations on the Syrian crisis. As a result, Syria’s de-escalation zones were explained. But the complexities of the situation on the ground in Syria and the lack of agreement over which countries could potentially offer troops to monitor these zones show just how difficult reaching consensus here could be.

Russia and Jordan are not only interested in maintaining cease-fair but are making big efforts to find a settlement of the Syrian conflict that would guarantee stability and security in the Middle East region. Moscow now is potentially the key actor, seeking a political solution to the Syrian crisis and garnering support from Jordan.

Russia hopes to cooperate with Jordan also in post-conflict reconstruction of Syria. It will be important for Russia as well to have Jordan as a partner in the Middle East region’s new balance of power, because Russian leaders consider this region to be among Russian foreign policy priorities and are planning to intensify their influence in it. However, taking into consideration close cooperation between Jordan and the USA, the coordination between Russia and Jordan will be limited to tactical, not strategic issues.