AMMAN, Jordan (MintPress)– Jordan has been careful not to get overtly involved over the past two years in neighboring Syria’s bloody civil war, unlike other countries in the region. It has kept most of its activities restricted to supplying generous humanitarian assistance to the more than 425,000 Syrian refugees who crossed the border to safety.
It also provides refuge to more than 3,000 senior police and army officers who defected from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as to the most prominent politician to defect to date, former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. Access to these figures is tightly restricted, authorities say, for their own protection.
Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has set up an office in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where hundreds of Free Syrian Army personnel also are present, signaling Jordan’s growing role as a quiet supporter of the opposition.
But some analysts believe that Jordan may now be taking on a more significant part, although Jordanian government officials are quick to dismiss the claims. They maintain that the kingdom has consistently worked for a diplomatic solution and has sought to avoid aggravating tensions with its more powerful northern neighbor.
Last week, the New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia had made a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and channeled them to Syrian rebel fighters, viewed as nationalist and secular. The aim was to break the stalemate which has allowed Assad to remain in power while also circumventing jihadist groups from taking a more prominent role in fighting to oust the Syrian leader.
Citing U.S. and Western officials familiar with the purchases, the newspaper said the weapons allegedly began reaching the rebels last December via shipments with Jordan’s assistance. Apparently, the weapons were part of an undeclared surplus in Croatia remaining from the 1990s Balkan wars.
The Times referred to a Croatian daily newspaper, ‘Jutarnji list,’ which reported that an unusually high number of sightings of Jordanian cargo planes at Pleso Airport in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, had been made over the past three months. But Croatian officials dismissed the report as speculation.
Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, has followed the reporting thread. He cites well-known Syria-watchers, such as bloggers Eliot Higgins (alias Brown Moses) and James Miller, who first began monitoring an influx of weapons from the former Yugoslavia to southern Syria. They said that most previous arms shipments entered Syria from the north, via Turkey.
Putting together the various sources, Joshi and others believe that Saudi money was used to purchase Croatian weapons which were picked up by Jordanian aircraft and then smuggled to rebels vetted by the United States.
Joshi said while Jordan has confiscated some suspect shipments, it was “unlikely that authorities did not know about weapons going northwards.”
Customs officials, however, recently reported intercepting military equipment hidden in a container in the southern port of Aqaba allegedly destined for a ‘neighboring country.’ According to the customs department director Maj. Gen. Ghaleb Sarayreh, agents found “15 military binoculars, six hunting rifles and other army equipment.”
Joshi said that perhaps different government branches “aren’t on the same page,” on whether to stop or allow the smuggling of military equipment. He maintains that recent reports of more equipment found among rebel forces in southern Syria suggest that some smuggling is taking place from Jordan across the border.
Jordan must be very careful in order to “avoid an escalation in tensions and military actions from the Assad regime, like what took place in Turkey,” he said.
Joshi believes that the U.S. did not like the results of weapons moving through Turkey as the primary weapons conduit with many arms winding up in the hands of jihadist fighters. He believes that channeling materiel through Jordan, a key U.S. Arab ally, will provide a “fresh approach.”
“This way opens a new front in southern Syria. It breaks free from connections with Saudi and Lebanese middlemen, while ensuring the weapons get to those rebels with secular or nationalists ties, rather than the jihadists,” he said.
Opening up a new front in the south, once strongly in the grip of regime troops, he believes also puts more pressure on the Assad regime.
Last autumn, Jordanian authorities admitted that U.S. and British forces were providing training to its military, particularly dealing with chemical weapons attacks in anticipation of the possibility that Assad would launch a strike against his neighbors.
Joshi, not citing his sources, said that the training also included Syrian rebels. He believes that there could be “an overlap in also providing training for combat purposes.”
After meeting Syrian opposition leaders in Rome last week, the new Secretary of State John Kerry announced the United States will provide the rebels battling to oust Assad with an additional $60 million in assistance and nonlethal aid.
During a press conference there, Kerry seemed to welcome some outside efforts to provide military support to rebels in Syria, even though he said Washington won’t be sending weapons.
“There is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not, at some point in time, flow into the wrong hands,” he said.
“But I will tell you this: There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is in fact getting to them and the indication is that they are increasing their pressure as a result of that,“ Kerry added, without elaborating.
Meanwhile, some European countries are expected to break with Washington’s official stance on weapons, as the European Union arms embargo to the rebels will come up for review in June. Britain is expected to push for a further relaxation in what can be provided if the conflict, in which more than 70,000 people have been killed, drags on.