European Council on Foreign Relations

The Syria crisis and its impact on Jordan and Lebanon

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I’m just back from a trip through Lebanon and Jordan, looking at the impact of the Syria crisis, and here are some quick initial observations:

As expected the conflict continues to dominate the airwaves in both countries but surprisingly – and contrary to the mood on previous trips throughout 2012 – Jordan now appears to be the more nervous of the two. Tensions in Lebanon actually appear to have calmed since the end of last year with domestic actors increasingly sensing that the conflict is going to drag on for a long while and falling into a cold – and calmer - stalemate of their own. While both sides continue to back their respective allies in Syria, the threat of a wider flare-up within Lebanon itself (which appeared increasingly imminent in late 2012) looks to have diminished, temporarily at least, as the different actors focus on preserving the country’s fragile peace. As the balance of power in Syrian potentially shifts, and as Lebanon faces new political questions of its own – notably elections due later this year - domestic competition will likely be re-energised, potentially provoking renewed tensions, but for now at least a certain calm prevails.

Jordan, meanwhile, is growing ever more wary of events in Syria. The threat of jihadi mobilisation and blowback into the Kingdom is a pressing concern for authorities – already, quite a few Jordanians are heading northwards and the close border makes for uncomfortable geography (unlike during the Iraq war years when a vast desert expanse provided some natural protection). There are also growing worries over what will come next in Syria, whether it be fragmentation/full state collapse or Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood control, both of which could directly threaten Jordanian stability. For the moment Jordan actually remains wary of Assad falling –without a moderate Syrian opposition leadership that can lead a transition guaranteeing the continuity of state institutions and which won’t empower Jordan’s own Muslim Brotherhood, it seems unlikely that it will take a more assertive stance in supporting the opposition or opening up its border for others to do so. As in Lebanon, the general sense is that Syria still has a long and painful course to run and Jordan does not want to leave itself exposed.

There have been a lot of stories in the press of late about Syrian refugees – and the impact really is acute in both countries. Not only are the numbers huge – over 200,000 in Lebanon and 300,000 in Jordan – imposing a tremendous economic burden on the two states, but the refugees are also playing directly into domestic political competition. In addition to fears in Jordan that the refugees will act as a conduit for militancy and insecurity, while also potentially feeding Islamist opposition mobilisation, the financial costs of hosting the refugee population could exacerbate the economic tensions lying at the heart of the Kingdom’s ongoing political unrest. In Lebanon, meanwhile, there are concerns that the large number of mostly Sunni Syrian refugees will impact the country’s fragile security balance, and some groups have expressed concerns about the demographic impact of the refugees and called for the border to be shut. The problematic history of longstanding Palestinian camps has also prevented the establishment of much needed refugee camps. Despite these concerns both countries are showing immense goodwill in keeping their borders open (other than for Syrian Palestinians who can’t enter Jordan because of how this would impact the country’s fragile demographic balance between Palestinians and East Jordanians). This goodwill is particularly noteworthy given the lack of sufficient international support that has thus far been provided. Much more money is urgently needed.

 

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