On May 26, Syria’s ambassador to Jordan, Bahjat Sulayman, received a terse letter from the Jordanian government informing him that he had been declared persona non grata and had 24 hours to leave the country. The expulsion of the Syrian ambassador may have seemed sudden or startling, but it had been brewing for quite some time. What is more surprising, in fact, is that it didn’t happen sooner.
Ambassador Sulayman had been an outspoken and even harsh critic of the Hashemite Kingdom and its policies throughout his tenure as the Asad regime’s representative in Amman. What angered many Jordanians, however, was not the question of policy differences, but that the ambassador was a vocal and dramatically undiplomatic diplomat. He was viewed by many Jordanians across the political spectrum — ranging from the Royal Court to the Muslim Brothers — as routinely hostile and insulting to his host country. While some leftist and nationalist opposition figures protested Sulayman’s expulsion in a letter published the very same day, most Jordanians seemed to welcome it as long overdue.
Yet the timing of the move is still interesting. If one is to risk the wrath of an angry and violent Asad regime by expelling its ambassador with seemingly little warning, then doing so at the outset of massive multinational military exercises in Jordan seems like the prudent strategy. As Jordan expelled the Syrian ambassador, it also began hosting the fourth annual Eager Lion joint military exercises (May 25 to June 10) with over 12,000 troops from 22 nations participating, including 6,000 from the United States.
The themes of the exercises include joint operations, border security and counter-terrorism — all pressing issues for Jordanians very concerned with the dangers of the Syrian war spilling over (even further) into Jordan itself. The security fears are so deep that last year, after the conclusion of the annual military maneuvers, the US left behind Patriot missile batteries, F-16 jet fighters and several hundred military personnel to bolster Jordan’s border with Syria. This US presence was seen as vital by many in the regime, but remains very unpopular with many in the opposition.
Even as Jordan attempts to secure its borders and its own domestic security, hundreds and sometimes thousands of new refugees arrive every day. The kingdom already hosts perhaps 1,300,000 Syrians, of whom at least 600,000 are in refugee camps. But fears remain that Jordan may have to contend with still more domestic security problems, whether emanating from pro-Asad forces or from militant jihadis returning from the Syrian fighting. Jordan’s official stance on the Syrian war has been to call for a negotiated political solution that leaves Syrian territory intact. But the kingdom has been charged with hosting officials from the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and even with training and arming the opposition, or at least allowing others (such as the US and Saudi Arabia) to do so within Jordanian borders. I am not aware of confirmation of the latter charges, but the regime in Damascus, and its now former ambassador, believes them.
Yet what is just as striking about this diplomatic rift is that it highlights the degree of diplomatic continuity between Jordan and Syria. Throughout the Syrian civil war, and despite all the issues and concerns noted above, Jordan and Syria have maintained diplomatic relations. And so far, that remains true even with the ouster of this particular diplomat. Jordan expelled one diplomat, but it has not broken ties with Syria. It has not expelled other diplomats or closed the Syrian embassy. On May 28, for example, hundreds of Syrians (but not 1.3 million Syrians, mind you) proceeded to the Syrian embassy in Amman to vote in the sham election organized by the Asad regime. So the diplomatic rift amounts, so far, to another difficult bump in the road, but not yet an outright break between the two countries.
Jordan remains in a hazardous position between dramatically different pressures: from Syria to stay out of Syrian affairs, and from its allies — the US, Saudi Arabia, and others — to do more to aid efforts in support of the opposition. The SNC, for example, no doubt hoped that Jordan would break relations with Syria and turn the embassy over to the opposition. So far, that hasn’t happened. If it were to occur, it would count as a game changer. For the moment at least, Jordan is not willing to take this risk.
The kingdom will try to maintain diplomatic ties all around (including to both government and opposition in Syria) and simply survive the maelstrom of the Syrian war. And for now at least, Jordan is open to Syria sending a more diplomatic diplomat to continue the always delicate dance of Jordanian-Syrian relations.