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Syrian Refugees Flood Into Neighboring Jordan


As the conflict in Syria rages on, an estimated 200,000 people have already fled to neighboring countries: to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and most of all to Jordan. Jordan's foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, says the country can't absorb anymore and that the 85,000 already there have strained Jordan's limited means. Those arrivals include most of the high-profile Syrian defectors, including former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. All this raises serious questions about Syria-Jordan relations and broader Middle East politics.

Marwan Muasher is the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, currently a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, and he joins us from a studio there. Nice to have you with us today.

MARWAN MUASHER: Thank you. Good to be here.

CONAN: Let's start with that refugee situation in Jordan. The current foreign minister says the country is being strained. There are reports that the fleeing is expected to continue. Do you expect Jordan will eventually have to close the border?

MUASHER: I don't think Jordan will close the border. Jordan has been in such a situation before, if you remember during the first Gulf crisis and then the second one where large numbers of Iraqis, third country nationals came to Jordan, fleeing the conflict. And as a general policy, Jordan has never closed its borders. That does not mean that it is not being tasked by these large number of refugees, but I don't think and I don't expect the borders to be closed.

CONAN: And that issue of strain then, how badly are Jordan's resources being tasked?

MUASHER: Well, the latest numbers that I have heard is close to 200,000 refugees in Jordan, 150 of which have gone inside the country, 50,000 on the borders today. Jordan has taken now the decision not to admit any more inside the country but to place all these refugees at the border. Still, the country's educational facilities, water supplies, health facilities, all of these are being, of course, affected because they are working at full capacity, if not beyond full capacity. And its ability to absorb and service, you know, larger number of people is going to be very difficult.

CONAN: And we hear about smaller but significant numbers into Turkey as well and that, of course, a much more prosperous country than Jordan.

MUASHER: It is. In fact, international aid has not been coming as sort of generously as it should, in my estimation. One of the problems is that the refugees themselves are not eager and refuse, in fact, to register with such organizations as UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee, for example, because they are afraid that if they do so that these records will find their way to the Syrian authorities. And whereas, you know, the Jordanian authorities are trying to convince them that this is, of course, not going to be the case, they're still afraid of registering for these reasons.

CONAN: We know in the case of Turkey that the two governments before this crisis broke out enjoyed very warm relations and that the government in Accra has been bitterly disappointed by the actions of the regime in Damascus and now is among its most prominent enemies. What was the situation between Jordan and Syria before this crisis erupted and what's it like now?

MUASHER: Politically, Jordan and Syria had wide differences over a number of issues, including, for example, the peace process and the economy and the openness of the political system. But having said that, they still enjoyed good trade relations. Syria was and still, of course, is a neighbor, and so the relationship was more or less a normal one between the two countries. Now that this has taken place, I think that the Syrian regime has lost really its legitimacy all around the region in addition to inside Syria. The last poll in Jordan shows that 82 percent of Jordanians are against the regime and with the uprising.

CONAN: And does that mean, then, that the Jordanian government is working with the Syrian opposition to overthrow the government in Damascus?

MUASHER: The government is treading a fine line. On one hand, it acknowledges that this is a regime that cannot survive, and that this is a matter of time, only. At the same time, because it's a neighbor and because the borders are still open and there is some trade going on, in addition to other reasons, the government is careful not to take matters, sort of, beyond a certain point. But I think that there is wide consensus in the region that understands that this regime has no chance of survival. The problem and the questions is, how many more people will be killed before it leaves the scene?

CONAN: Again, Turkey - we know that the Free Syrian Army uses Turkey as a safe haven. Injured are brought back to be treated in medical facilities. The fighters return there to rest and re-equip and then come back. That's a very porous border in that situation. What about Jordan? Is Jordan allowing the Free Syrian Army effectively to operate from its territory?

MUASHER: No. There are no military operations being conducted out of Jordan for the Free Syrian Army. Jordan has received a number of defectors from Syria, including the ex-prime minister of Syria and several army officers who have defected to Jordan. But they have not engaged in any military activity, so far.

CONAN: Why no?

MUASHER: Jordan does not allow them to do so. Jordan, as I said, is still treading a very careful line between, sort of, the meeting its humanitarian obligations towards the refugees, but not being seen as an active participant in what it still considers as a domestic issue.

CONAN: Hedging its bets, in other words, that it doesn't want to be seen as being too supportive of the opposition should the Assad regime survive.

MUASHER: You might, you know, you might call it so. I'm not their official and so I'm not particularly knowledgeable about, you know, all the reasons that go into this. I think that, in a way, it is hedging its bets, but I don't think that Jordan or any other Arab country's under any illusion that the regime will survive.

CONAN: And what about potential remedies if, indeed, the country is strained to the breaking point - and I think that's probably an exaggeration - but nevertheless, strained in any case. Is the government of Jordan calling for remedies like a safe zone to be established along the - in Syrian territory, along the Jordanian border? Is it calling for no-fly zones?

MUASHER: No, not so far. No-fly zones and safe zones, as you know, will require a military intervention by, you know, by someone, by the international community, by NATO forces, by the United States or by Arab forces. They are not as easy to defend as they are to establish. So Jordan has so far not called for no-fly zones, but it has said it will go with the consensus of any international effort to try to remedy the situation.

CONAN: Syria, of course, is not Jordan's only neighbor. Its also bordered by Saudi Arabia - both Saudi Arabia and the gulf states have been rather more active in supporting the Syrian opposition. Have they been putting pressure on Oman?

MUASHER: Not really. I mean, like I said, the Jordanian position is not that different from Saudi one. The only difference is because it's a neighbor, Jordan has been a bit more careful about its support of military activities. The Saudis and others have been very forthcoming in humanitarian aid that they are giving to the refugees in Jordan through the Jordanian government. They have supplied these refugees with, you know, with food, with equipment for housing, et cetera and continue to do so.

CONAN: Yet, the Saudis and the Qataris and others have also been providing the rebels with military weapons. Is that happening along the border with Jordan?

MUASHER: They have indeed, but not through Jordan, as far as I know.

CONAN: And you talked about hedging your bets. Doesn't that risk putting your bets on the wrong side if, indeed, the rebels do topple, which from what you say, the regime believes is only a matter of time. Why don't they put their bets on - with the opposition?

MUASHER: That's a debate that is actually going on inside the country today. As I said, 82 percent of Jordanians are with the uprising, not all of them, however, are with any military intervention against the Syrian regime. This is a very sensitive issue in Arab politics, to be seen as actively working militarily against an Arab regime. Still, as I said, the sentiments of the people in Jordan, not all of them, but the overwhelming majority of them, are with the uprising. And the country, I would expect, the government, will probably have to change its position as developments move. It's a fair question to ask. You know, one day, we'll be able to do so. There are many who have asked the government to take on a sort of a clearer position on the Syrian crisis than it has so far.

CONAN: How porous is the border? If people wanted to operate across it clandestinely, would they be able to do so?

MUASHER: Yes. It's a large border. I don't remember exactly how many miles, but it's a large border. And we have suffered, in Jordan, in the past, from actually clandestine operations that came through Syria from radical groups that have attempted some instability inside the country, inside Jordan. So it is - I would not say it's a very porous. There is, of course, border security over there, but it is a large border, and operations can be sometimes conducted porously.

CONAN: We've heard again from Turkey, which has played a much more prominent role in this situation, about the family and business contacts across the border. There are - the group that dominates the Syrian government, the Alawites, has an equivalent in Turkey, the Alevis, as they're called there.

MUASHER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: They are, of course, everybody's majority Sunni Muslims in Syria as well as in Turkey. There are Kurds in both countries as well, yet the similarities between the Syrian people and the Jordanian people seemed to be much more congruent. They seemed to be much more alike.

MUASHER: Well, you know, they're both Arabs of course. Unlike Syria and Turkey, Jordan has very, very few Alawites or even Shiites in the country. Most of the country is Sunni Muslim with about 5 percent Christian community, but Syrian - we have a very large Syrian minority in the country that had emmigrated from Sunni over the years and acquired to have gained citizenship. And so there's some family ties between the two countries. There are extensive straight ties between Syria and Jordan. Sixty percent of inland trade goes through Syria from Jordan and vice versa. So, obviously, there are very extensive trade and family ties.

CONAN: Marwan Muasher is with us, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you, the - there's been some suggestions that the events in Libya over the past few days have put breaks on the idea of any international foreign intervention, any humanitarian intervention in Syria, that the losers, from what happened in Benghazi, may be the people of Damascus and the people of Aleppo.

MUASHER: I think, frankly, that there is a very, so far, little appetite for an international intervention in the country, whether here, domestically in the United States, or by most of the international community, and that is not linked to what happened - the tragic events that happened in Libya yesterday. So why there's great, you know, people feel terrible about what is happening in Syria, the thousands of people who have been killed, there is still very little appetite for such an intervention. The Russian and Chinese position are part of this. But I think if you look at this country, in the United States, whether on both side of the aisle, Democrat or Republican, there's a feeling that the United States should not be involved.

CONAN: Some of those who are more hawkish say Syria is a paper tiger, that its military is not as powerful as some would describe it. That it would be just a matter of days, maybe even hours to reduce the Syrian air force to being incapable of interfering with a no-fly zone. You have some experience. What do you think?

MUASHER: I think there's some truth to that. We have also seen, you know, how the Iraqi military (unintelligible) in the war against Iraq in 2003, and the Iraqi army was far more equipped that the Syrian one. So I think there's a lot of truth to that, but that is not the whole story. I think that the question is not whether it is easy to defeat the Syrian army or not, but what will arise after the defeat of that army. And the question on most people's mind is to ensure that there is no vacuum such as what happened in Iraq after 2003 that, you know, put the country in a civil war that it is still trying to get out of. That is the question on many people's mind, to ensure that there is no such factor and to ensure that there is at least a minimum of a smooth transition to another regime.

CONAN: And some people also fear that what could happen is, in effect, a divided Syria - a Kurdish area, an Alawite area and a Sunni area.

MUASHER: Indeed, and the longer this regime stays, the bigger this possibility is. I think any solution to the Syrian crisis will have to assure the different communities in Syria, at the top of which are the Alawites of their future in the country. Many Alawites today do not feel that what the Bashar Assad is doing to their country is excusable. At the same time, they are afraid to basically jump the ship and go against him for fear of being, sort of, killed and massacred by the majority Sunnis in the country. And so a political process will have to address the aspirations, the needs, the fears of these different minority communities in Syria.

CONAN: A political process we've seen very little of. There's nothing going on.

MUASHER: Not much. There is a U.N. envoy, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, who was both an U.N. and Arab League envoy, who is trying, you know, to initiate such a process. But given, in my view, the fact that this regime looks at things in Syria as a zero-sum game, there is, indeed, a very little likelihood of the success of the political process.

CONAN: Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister, deputy prime minister of Jordan, with us from studios at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. Thanks very much for your time.

MUASHER: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, and Ira Flatow will be here. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at NPR West in Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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