Jordanian king in Moscow to discuss bilateral ties

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Jordan's King Abdullah II during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, on April 9, 2014. Putin hosted today Jordan's King Abdullah II for talks on Syria, nuclear energy and defence. (Photo: AFP- Ria-Novosti / Pool/ Alexey)

By: Sakhr al-Adwan

Published Thursday, April 10, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin joked with his visitor King Abdullah II of Jordan in front of journalists saying: “Are you still planning to go on a trip across Russia on your motorcycle?” The king replied: “Yes, but with the company of my dear brother,” meaning of course the Russian leader. That was a friendly signal to the Jordanian king by Putin who rarely breaches protocol. Is it a sign of Moscow’s positive expectations regarding a new Jordanian position towards Syria? It is likely that Amman decided to move,with the help of Moscow, towards reconciliation with Damascus. But no one can tell what discussions went on behind closed doors on Wednesday in the Moscow suburb of Novo-Ogaryovo where the press was not allowed.

Amman: There are several issues to be discussed at the Russian-Jordanian talks. Bilaterally, there is the issue of establishing a nuclear reactor to produce electricity, obtaining licenses and technical assistance to produce medium-grade Russian weapons, trade, tourism and the latest in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. But the primary focus of the meeting is the Syrian crisis.

Russia is not terribly pleased with the Jordanian government for providing the armed Syrian opposition in southern Syria with weapons and fighters but it will hear an explanation by the king that will try minimize these violations. The king will remind Russia that his country’s borders with Syria remained, throughout the past three years and despite enormous pressure, the least harmful to the Syrian regime compared to the Lebanese, Turkish and Iraqi borders. Jordan will also remind Russia that Jordanian airports provide services to cargo planes of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations carrying aid from Russia to Syria. Given its alliance with the GCC and the US, Amman cooperated as much as possible to avoid interfering in Syria. While the Jordanian position provokes the anger of Syria and its allies, it also provokes Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has reached the point of despair over Jordan’s ambivalent position on opening its border to the battle in southern Syria.

The Russians in fact are not angry. While they are critical of the Jordanian position, they have shown some understanding. There is an open agreement with the Jordanians on the need for a political solution in Syria. But behind closed doors, there is a new Jordanian position. Jordanian officials have three deep-rooted convictions. 1) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime are staying. 2) There is no direct US or Western intervention in Syria and the US is not going to allow the Syrian opposition to obtain qualitative military technology. 3) The crisis in Syria will continue and its negative impact on Jordanian security is very high.

In addition to the Syrian refugees that come through legitimate border crossings, there are illegal refugees who have reached over 600 thousand and their largest concentration is in the highly volatile al-Zaatari camp. There was an uprising of sorts lately in the camp. The main problem however is the terrorism returning to Jordan in the form of fighters, weapons, drugs, etc... In the past few weeks, the Jordanian-Syrian borders witnessed many armed clashes with groups coming back from Syria.

Circles within the Jordanian regime believe that postponing waging a decisive battle in Daraa in southern Syria is a kind of revenge against Jordanian interference in its northern neighbor. Daraa now poses more danger to Jordanian security than Syrian security. Amman sent emissaries to Damascus and is, ironically, pushing for a decisive military solution in southern Syria. The Jordanian regime has reached the conclusion that there are no moderates among the armed groups on the other side and is therefore hoping that the Syrian army will control the border between the two countries as soon as possible.

How did Amman move from discussing an attack on southern Syria to hoping that the Syrian state would return to the border?

First, Jordanian officials point out that discussions are one thing and the decision on the ground is quite another. Second, Amman understood well the ceiling under which the US operates in Syria, namely, exercising pressure and pushing for a compromise that fits Washington and Tel Aviv’s goals and not toppling the regime. Third, the escalation of the danger at the border to Jordanian security. Fourth, fear that the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan would multiply.

All these factors prompted different factions within the Jordanian decision-making circle to agree that the survival and victory of the Syrian regime - rather than its ouster or the continuation of the war - will fulfill the strategic interests of the Jordanian kingdom. That is what they need to work for on two parallel levels: First, pushing for decisive action in Syria, especially in Daraa. Second, advocating for a realistic political solution that takes into consideration that “Assad is staying.”

King Abdullah II took these concerns to Moscow, and not Washington D.C., since Russia is the realistic side to talk to about a safe way out of the West’s camp in order to get to the next phase with the least possible losses. This phase however needed an opportunity. The opportunity came with 1) the Saudi-Qatari disagreement which allowed Amman to have more maneuvering space and 2) the Saudi confusion over the Turkish decision - with Qatari funding - to open the Kassab-Latakia battle front which means increased Qatari and Turkish influence among the armed Syrian opposition. It also means the Muslim Brotherhood will regain political and military control of the opposition’s seat in any future solution.

Amman is unhappy with the Turkish attack on Kassab, which it views as a negative development. Abdullah II, who is not fond of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and considers him a “sectarian instigator,” will talk to his Russian host about this issue.

Amman is moving towards reconciliation with Damascus but such reconciliation has to go through Russia in search of deals and guarantees, etc... That much is clear. What is unclear is whether the Jordanians are paving the way for a Saudis to change their position as well.

Jordanian-Russian nuclear cooperation

Jordan is exhausted by its energy bill which impedes its economic development. It is therefore moving towards nuclear energy as a strategic alternative. Russia is going to build an electronuclear plant in Jordan. Russia Today reported that the documents of the project that Putin and Abdullah II discussed will be ready to be signed before the beginning of next summer. The plant will be built by 2020. This project is expected to be the largest in Russian-Jordanian bilateral relations. The value of the investment is estimated at 10 billion dollars. The nuclear plant will run about 12 - 15 percent of the total energy balance of the country and the project will provide all its needs of electric power with the possibility of exporting any surplus to neighboring countries.

In October 2013, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation won a tender to build the plant of which the Jordanian side will own 51 percent and the Russian Rosatom will invest 49 percent of its total cost.

Manufacturing Russian arms in Jordan

In 2013, Russia built a factory to produce launchers (RPJ - 32) to arm the Jordanian army. The Jordanians equipped the production unit while the company Rosoboronexport equipped the production lines and the machines that manufacture and assemble the shells. It also oversees the work of Jordanian experts.

Amman also wants to manufacture backup parts for helicopters and anti-armor Kornet weapon system on its own territory with a Russian license. That is why, the Jordanian Council on Foreign relations sent yesterday a letter to the Russian president in solidarity with “Russia which is facing Western provocations in Ukraine.” The letter also congratulated Russia for “the return of Crimea to the motherland” through a free referendum and under the rules of international law.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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