RAMTHA, Jordan – At the lush border with Syria, Jordanian soldiers occasionally conduct their own foreign policy.
Despite Jordan’s determination to avoid taking sides in the Syrian revolt, the border guards don’t remain neutral when people fleeing across the border come under fire from Syrian soldiers.
Syrian watch towers dot the distance in an open valley near the Jordanian border town of Ramtha. Syrian rebels and refugees often flee through the valley.
In November, an army officer saved a pregnant woman who was fleeing with her husband and eight-year-old son. She had been shot by a Syrian guard and was struggling to reach the border. Jordanian soldiers fired at Syrian troops to provide cover and the family was saved.
“We saved her in our own way,” said an officer, refusing to elaborate because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
But helping the opposition is not official Jordanian policy. The kingdom is trying to remain neutral despite pressure from Syria to crack down on the refugees and pressure from Gulf states to help the rebels.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar want Jordan to allow weapons to move across the border to supply the rebels. Jordan, of course, is worried that President Bashar Al Assad will survive the uprising and punish Jordan for aiding the opposition.
There is precedent. In 1970 Syria invaded Jordan briefly and took control of 125 square kilometres of Jordanian territory. The countries finally settled the dispute in 2004, but the boundaries still are not clearly marked.
“Jordan is under tremendous pressure, particularly from the Gulf, to act as a conduit but the country is fretting about its security,” Suleiman Ghneimat, a retired Jordanian army general said.
Mr Ghneimat said the Gulf kingdoms are offering financially ailing Jordan considerable aid for its cooperation.
“But if it takes action, the Syrian regime has supporters here both Syrians and Jordanian and they can act as a destabilizing force with the support of the Syrian regime.
“Also if the Syrian regime is pressured by more than one front, it will act like a cornered cat”, he said.
Publicly, Jordan is neutral. But as violence worsens in Syria, Jordan may play a clandestine role in arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel fighting group.
Syrian rebels say that the FSA gets smuggled light weapons and bullets paid for by wealthy Syrian expats in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
The arms are flowing into Syria from Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, rebels say.
Adding to tensions is a military exercise Jordan is hosting along the border with Sryia.
The “Eager Lion 2012″ exercise is the largest in the region in 10 years and brings together army units from 17 countries, including the United States, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Jordan and US officials denied the exercise has anything to do with Syria.
Syria accused Jordan this month on Syrian TV of “conspiring against Syria and supporting terrorists.”
Jordanian officials deny they are being pressed to let the rebels smuggle weapons across the border.
Instead, the government talks about humanitarian assistance and estimates more than 100,000 refugees have entered Jordan since the uprising began 15 months ago.
Jordan says it has opened its schools for 6,500 Syrian students and provides free medical treatment at state hospitals. A royal-sponsored NGO says it distributes aid to 25,000 refugees.
Despite its neutral stance, the kingdom is worried that the Syrian regime might try to destabilise Jordan.
Syrian army defectors have been transferred from one military-guarded camp to another after Syrian regime moles tried to poison water tanks at the original camp, defectors and rebels have told The National.
Activists say restrictions have been imposed on visitors at a refugee housing complex after a similar poisoning attempt.
Mr Al Assad’s regime has applied direct diplomatic pressure, too. Jordanian websites have reported that Assef Shawkat, the Syrian deputy minister of defense, visited Jordan several months ago, demanding that the kingdom hand over defectors and threatening to use military action. King Abdullah told him Jordan cannot be threatened.
But the Syrian pressure is affecting Jordan, Syrian activists say. They complain that Jordanian security officers have harassed, questioned and detained them in recent weeks.
Mohammad Abu Rumman, an analyst and commentator with Al Ghad, a local newspaper, attributed the treatment to the country’s desire to avoid a confrontation with the Syrian regime.
For now, Jordan wants to play safe. It already has plenty of problems.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoot in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, had elections this month and hardliners emerged with more power within the movement.
That development comes as the country’s economy is suffering from a staggering budget deficit, its citizens are angry over the slow pace of reforms and consumers are chafing over recent price hikes.
Source: The National