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Russia's Syria intervention: The view from Amman and Beirut Open in fullscreen

Karim Traboulsi

Russia's Syria intervention: The view from Amman and Beirut

Amman and Beirut will be watching developments across the border with great apprehension [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 October, 2015

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Analysis: The Russian military intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime is no doubt a game-changer for the entire region.

Unlike its ally, Saudi Arabia, the Jordanian government has been remarkably quiet about the Russian intervention in Syria.

However, there is no doubt Moscow's operations to the north are being closely watched in Amman.

Jordan is part of the US-led coalition that has conducted airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against the radical group Islamic State group and other jihadist factions.

In December 2014, Jordan lost a pilot over Raqqa, the IS stronghold. The pilot was executed a few months later, burned alive, after he was captured by the radical group.

Jordan continued to conduct air sorties against IS for a few weeks, but it seems its aerial campaign there has gradually petered out. In other words, there is little chance of operational conflict between Jordan's air force and Russia's.

Yet Jordan is thought to be providing support to Syrian rebels, especially in southern Syria, through a suspected Military Operations Centre (MOC) in the kingdom.


The Syrian opposition Southern Front operating mainly in the Daraa province has so far held off pro-regime forces, effectively giving Jordan a friendly buffer zone off its northern border.

The Syrian rebels in question control all main border crossings between Syria and Jordan.

There has also been speculation that Jordan could be planning to expand its borders to incorporate Sunni-majority parts of southern Syria and Iraq, which were once ruled by kings belonging to the same Hashemite dynasty that now rules Jordan.

While Russia is coordinating its Syria operations with Israel and will respect Tel Aviv's "red lines" in southern Syria, there is no official indication Russia will give Jordan the same treatment.

The Jordanian king was recently in Moscow and, earlier this week, Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko visited Amman for talks. It is possible there have been some behind-the-doors discussions regarding Amman's interests in southern Syria.

However, Russia's attacks on Syrian rebels well outside of IS-controlled areas, and this week's Russian-backed ground offensive against rebels in northern Syria, could be replicated down the road against the rebels allegedly backed by Jordan in the south.

Wary

Meanwhile, thousands of Jordanians are fighting with radical jihadist groups across the border. Amman would therefore have little cause to oppose Russian air raids against jihadists, who it fears could one day return to Jordan and destabilise the already fragile kingdom.

Yet Jordan, which is host to more than a million Syrian refugees, must also be wary that the escalation of violence in Syria could send more refugees its way. Jordan, a relatively poor country with limited resources, is already struggling with providing services to its refugee population.

Ultimately, the Russian intervention in Syria, which most observers agree is a high-stakes gamble, increases the level of uncertainty for Jordan.

Jordan is unlikely to follow the lead of the Gulf powers and come out in opposition to Russia's Syria raids, however, but it will be keen to hold on to its cards in Syria to guarantee its interests will be preserved in any future settlement, which will most definitely now involve Russia as a key broker.

Lebanon

Jordan's calculus regarding refugees also applies to Lebanon, a smaller and even less stable country hosting millions of Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

However, Lebanon's involvement in the Syrian conflict is more compound.

Lebanon's complicated history with Syria and the regime there has resulted in almost half of the Lebanese population, especially in the Sunni community, supporting the Syrian rebels, while the other half, mainly in the Shia community, support the Assad regime.

Hizballah, Lebanon's powerful Shia militia, has intervened directly alongside the regime in Damascus, and is reportedly coordinating its activities with the Russians.

Meanwhile, the anti-Assad faction in Lebanon and its allies in Saudi Arabia have played an important role in supporting the Syrian opposition - some say even with arms and fighters at some point in the conflict.

This is not to mention the small but significant Sunni jihadist constituency in the country, which has sent fighters to Syria and staged attacks on Hizballah and pro-Assad Alawi Muslims in Lebanon.

[click to enlarge]

There are several ways Russia's entry into the fray in Syria could have an impact in Lebanon.

A rout of the rebels in Syria, including jihadists, could drive hundreds of fighters in the direction of Lebanese border, where rebels have been entrenched for some time and are already engaged in battles with Hizballah and the Lebanese army.

Of particular concern would be Sunni towns such as Arsal, known for its sympathy to Syrian rebels and a site of frequent flare-ups, including with neighbouring Shia villages.

In addition to the security uncertainty the Russian intervention brings with it, bolstering the Syrian regime affects the balance of power in Syria almost in the same measure it affects the current balance of power in Lebanon.

Indeed, the current political stalemate is the result of no side in the Lebanese divide - the Hizballah-led camp and the Future Movement-led camp - being able to impose its agenda on the other.

However, the Russian intervention could make Hizballah more powerful, especially if it achieves major victories against the Syrian opposition.

This would translate into further leverage for Hizballah over the Lebanese government, parliament and army; Hizballah has already signalled it would accept only its Christian ally Michel Aoun as president.

With Hizballah's main rival, Saad Hariri, already in self-imposed exile over security concerns, any victory for the regime camp in Syria could help Hizballah and its allies almost completely dominate Lebanon, with implications for the country's long-term stability and configuration.

Uncertain outcomes

Evidently, Russia's intervention brings more uncertainty for Jordan and Lebanon in the short term. In the long term, however, the outcome could be different.

Ultimately, it will be the as-yet-unclear Russian endgame in Syria that will determine whether it will expedite a political settlement there, and therefore bring stability to the entire region; or whether it will trigger pushback by the regime's opponents and push the region and its fragile nations such as Lebanon and Jordan into further chaos and bloodletting.

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