Syria and Jordan: Freshmen Compare Notes
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Jordan’s King Abdullah wrapped up a visit to Syria July 19. He was one of the first heads of state to visit President Bashar Assad since his father’s funeral. Historically, relations between Jordan and Syria have been tumultuous – they’ve traded compliments and they’ve traded gunfire. But both countries now have young, relatively inexperienced leadership, who will benefit by cooperating with one another. Government controlled Syrian Arab Republic Radio reported July 19 that Assad had promised to provide Jordan “with all the water possible.” Although the gesture was likely symbolic – Syria is facing its own drought and has little water to spare – the sentiment is significant to the desert kingdom of Jordan and bodes well for relations between Amman and Damascus.Abdullah and Assad have much in common. Both have spent considerable time in the West. Abdullah was educated in Massachusetts and England. Assad studied medicine in England. Neither man planned to lead his country; each was installed on relatively short notice. And neither has much experience in the political intrigues of running a government.
Jordan and Syria face similar difficulties domestically and internationally. Neither of their economies is growing fast enough to sustain rising populations. Both nations are preparing to deal with a resurgent Iraq, and both deal intimately with Israel and the Palestinians. Economically, Syria’s 17 million citizens can provide a substantial market for Jordanian goods. Syria also has direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, controls access to Lebanon and its market, and has surplus oil production – all three of which are useful to landlocked, energy-starved Jordan. Jordan is resource-poor, but has one important commodity, the ear of the United States. A historic ally to Washington and London, Jordan can rehabilitate Syria’s image as a rogue state and terrorist sponsor – which may lead to foreign investment. To an extent, the elevation of a new leader provides Syria the opportunity redefine itself and change the way it is perceived abroad. Jordan can play a key role in that strategy.
Iraq is increasing its diplomatic ties and exporting more oil, as the U.N. sanctions regime slowly unravels. Both Amman and Damascus have reason to be prepared. Syria is a traditional enemy of Iraq. Smaller, weaker Jordan has found it strategically necessary to maintain good relations with Baghdad. Both nations have strengthened their diplomatic ties with Iraq in the last year. By conferring together, Assad and Abdullah can coordinate their policies, or at least intimate their strategies.  The two nations are in different stages with Israel. Jordan signed a non-belligerency treaty in 1994, while Syria is still technically at war. But Jordan can act as an intermediary between Damascus and Jerusalem in return for Syrian support for Jordan’s desire to repatriate the Palestinian refugees on its territory. Unfamiliar with domestic politics, and pressured by poor economies, Abdullah and Assad can each benefit by working with the other. Jordan and Syria will grow closer economically, as each leader helps the other survive.