Behind the Headlines: Abdullah’s Recent Syria Courtship First Departure from Hussein’s Path
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Behind the Headlines: Abdullah’s Recent Syria Courtship First Departure from Hussein’s Path

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A recent trip made by Jordan’s King Abdullah made to Syria has provided a strong indication that the monarch is embarking on a new course that could upset the old certainties about the Hashemite kingdom.

While it is generally thought that Abdullah will broadly maintain Jordan’s pro- Western tilt, it is becoming equally accepted that he plans to diverge somewhat from the path of his father and predecessor, King Hussein.

In recent weeks, Abdullah has assiduously — and successfully — courted the Persian Gulf states, which had shunned King Hussein over his perceived tilt toward Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But most significant among Abdullah’s new departures is the remarkable rapprochement he has engineered with Syria, a potentially dangerous enemy that had harbored a profound hostility toward his late father, particularly after Hussein signed the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

While the Jordanian-Syrian rapprochement appears set to deepen and strengthen, Arab sources in London are saying this week that the new relationship will not come at the expense of Israeli-Jordanian peace.

On the contrary, they say, a central Syrian interest in improving ties with Abdullah is to use Jordan as a bridge to Britain and the United States with the aim of putting Damascus back on the map of international diplomacy.

They also point out that when Abdullah recently traveled to Damascus, the Syrians asked him to use his good offices when he visits London and Washington later this month to revive Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Those talks were suspended in 1996 by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres when Syrian President Hafez Assad failed to condemn a series of terror attacks against Israel at the time.

The sources are emphatic that improved ties with Syria do not indicate that Abdullah is backing away from the 1994 treaty with Israel.

They also stress that Syria has not asked Jordan to reassess its ties with Israel.

Indeed, they add, relations between Jordan and Israel are likely to improve, particularly if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is defeated in the May 17 elections.

The first tentative steps toward a rapprochement between Syria and Jordan started shortly before the death of Hussein, who is said to have believed that after Netanyahu’s election in 1996, Jordan faced the prospect of losing its relations with Syria while not winning the fruits of peace with Israel.

But, say the sources, progress toward a full-blown detente was limited — as was the case with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the first Arab leader to make peace with the Jewish state — by the fact that it was Hussein’s hand that signed the treaty with Israel.

The recent turnaround in Syria’s attitude toward Jordan was signaled when Assad personally attended Hussein’s funeral last February, surprising even his own officials, who had expected Vice President Abdelhalim Khaddam to represent Syria.

Relations have strengthened faster than expected because of the apparently warm relations that have developed between Abdullah and Assad’s son and heir apparent, Bashar, who has been given the responsibility of fostering Syria’s relations with Jordan.

One indication of improved relations was the announcement this week that Syria and Jordan are to go ahead with the joint construction of the Unity Dam on the Yarmuk River, a project that was first discussed in 1987 but has been on a back burner ever since.

The sources believe that Syria’s model for future relations with Abdullah’s Jordan is similar to those established with President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.

Both Egypt and Jordan have seemingly irrevocable peace treaties with Israel, but — as far as Assad is concerned — the current leaders of both are untainted by personal involvement in those treaties.

Assad now wants Abdullah, like Mubarak, to persuade Britain and the United States to refocus their attention on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks of the peace process and to resume negotiations at the point where the Syrians say they had reached under Israel’s previous Labor government.

It is also understood that all the Gulf leaders whom Abdullah has met during a flurry of Middle East visits during the past two months have reinforced this point and asked him to intercede on Syria’s behalf.

Abdullah is likely to be a willing intercessor, particularly if this serves to accelerate the process of normalizing relations with Syria and expanding the circle of Arab states engaged in the peace process.

This will not only reduce Jordan’s isolation and vulnerability within the Arab context, but also help to establish and legitimize Abdullah’s rule.

It is also suggested that close relations with Syria could serve to buttress Jordan in the face of an ambitious and assertive Palestinian leadership that might seek to destabilize the Hashemite throne.

Meanwhile, there is another, even more sensitive, item on Syria’s agenda than ending its sense of marginalization in the peace process and reinstating Damascus on the itineraries of visiting U.S. secretaries of state.

Assad understands that it is in Abdullah’s power to apply the brakes to Jordan’s relationship with Turkey and ensure that the nascent cooperation between Israel, Jordan and Turkey does not develop into a full-blown trilateral strategic alliance that could threaten Syria.

Abdullah’s response to such a proposal — which touches directly on his kingdom’s vital strategic interests — will provide the most valuable clue to Jordan’s future geopolitical posture in general and its relations with Israel in particular.

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