RAMTHA, Jordan - A melting pot for refugees from around the world, Jordan has recently welcomed the latest batch of asylum seekers from neighboring Syria, but officials in Amman fear this bite is more than they can chew.
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Ever since the popular uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad took a violent turn five months ago, Jordan’s northernmost towns over the border with Syria have been welcoming dozens of Syrians families and soldiers fleeing crackdown on protesters.
When revolts first broke out across the Arab World at the start of the year, Jordanians here in the city of Ramtha and its neighboring villages were excited at the prospect of despots being brought down. When the unrest spread to Syria, which started in the country’s south not far from Jordan, they welcomed the first wave of Syrian asylum seekers with open arms.
But as the protests wore on and the government of Assad counterattacked with a violent crackdown, the mood shifted. For many residents, cross-border trade is what puts bread on the table, but the crackdown virtually shut the border with Jordan. Syrian authorities refused to allow Jordanian merchants into its territory to buy food and other essentials that supply Ramtha’s stores and markets.
“The siege on this small town sent a message to Jordanian officials that Damascus was ready to cut Jordan from a vital food source in case it supported the revolt,” says Abdullah Zubi, an activist from Ramtha, whose population numbers 100,000 people, making it the biggest town near the border.
The Arab Spring has dealt roughly with Jordan, an American ally, and there is little sign that the regional unrest in abating. At home, King Abdullah has faced protests calling for deep political reforms while chaos in the Sinai Peninsula has cut off the country’s supply of Egyptian natural gas. The economy has had to contend with higher prices for oil and food.
Assad has killed more than 2,000 people in his bid to quell protests against his rule. On Saturday, Syrian forces attacked demonstrators in suburbs of the capital, Damascus, as well in the cities of Deir Al-Zour, Homs and Nawa, human rights activists said. The foreign minister of Iran, Syria’s most important ally, on Saturday called on Assad to "pay heed to the legitimate demands of his people" and warned that a potential power vacuum in Damascus "would bring about unpredictable consequences" for the region.
Jordan imports most of its foodstuffs from Syria or through Syrian territories. So far, the trade line has not been disrupted, but concern is growing that retaliation could lead Syria to seal its borders with Jordan, a blow that the kingdom would find difficult to handle, considering its limited resources and options in the region, say analysts.
But the distress involved more than trade. Several influential businessmen and lawmakers with close links to Syria, hired thugs to stop local residents from taking to the streets in support of the uprising against Assad’s Baath regime, Zubi said. Meanwhile, with protests spreading in Syria and the death toll rising, the exodus intensified from Houran district, the southern tip of Syria and cradle of anti-Assad protests.
Dissidents who arrive in Jordan talk of random killings and arrests as well as looting and sabotage by the Syrian army and civilian groups believed to be close to the under fire regime.
Abdul Rahman, a former Syrian soldier, says he crossed the border on foot from Deraa two months ago, after he refused to shoot at civilians.
“We were given orders to shoot protesters, destroy houses and arrest anyone believed to be a threat,” says Abdul Rahman after performing taraweeh
prayer among several Syrian asylum seekers.
The 34-year-old former soldier is seeking asylum with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“I can’t return to Syria as long as the Assad regime is ruling. They arrested my brother and destroyed my house after I escaped to Jordan,” says Abdul Rahman, who often takes part in anti-Assad protests in several cities across Jordan.
In the border town of Mafraq, a tribal stronghold loyal to Jordan’s King Abdullah, several Syrian soldiers cross the landmine infested region in search for safety. Residents say refugees have been welcomed by local families, but there is little public discussion about it for fear of retaliation from the Syrians.
Abu Samara, a tribal leader from Khalidya, is one of the few who are willing to talk about what is happening. He says the livelihood of many Jordanians depends on cross border trade with Syria, including transport of cattle, food items and other merchandise. Scores of residents in Mafraq also work in the smuggling business. Some bring in cigarettes, electric appliances, food items and often drugs.
But more than trade, tribes and families straddle both sides of the border, creating a network of loyalty and mutual support that transcend political and national divisions.
“Jordan and Syria are one country, the people are the same. These borders came into existence only a few years ago, but we still have relatives on the other side of the border and our duty is to help them,” he told The Media Line in a telephone interview.
At Abu Samara’s house lives a Syrian family of six people from Deraa in southern Syria, who arrived nearly two months ago when the Syrian army pushed into the city to silence anti-Assad demonstrators. The parents arrived along with their three daughters and one son.
Political ties between Jordan and Syria, particularly between the fathers of the current two leaders, the late King Hussein and Hafez Assad, have been marred by periodic episodes of tension. While Syria has grown into an ally of Iran and Lebanon’s Shi'ite militant movement Hezbollah, Jordan’s royal family is a traditional ally of the West. In the late 1970s, Syria and Jordan came close to a military confrontation over how to deal with their common neighbor, Israel. In more recent years, relations improved, but they are still fragile as Syria remains in the grip of the Hafez Assad-era old guard.
As the smaller of the two countries and facing its own domestic
tensions, Jordan has been sensitive to Syrian concerns. When Syrian
dissidents, including renegade soldiers, activists and ordinary
citizens, began coming across the border, Amman imposed a media gag on
refugees. By comparison, the approximately 7,000 Syrian refugees who
have cross into Turkey, on Syria’s north, have been interviewed by the
media while dissident leaders routinely meet in Istanbul, the Turkish
Jordanian Ministry of Interior officials insist that the number of
Syrians who have fled to Jordan as refugees is limited, pointing out
that many Syrians would visit the kingdom in summer for vacation. An
official source, who requested anonymity, will admit to only several
refugees being welcomed in. Sources at UNHCR said the agency has
recently approved requests for asylum from a number of Syrians.
Nevertheless, Jordan has recently accused Syria of siphoning off its
underground water and placing the kingdom under strain as it struggles
with chronic water shortage and rising population. On August 14,
Jordan’s prime minister, for the first time, scolded the Syrian
government for resorting to violence to crush protesters and urged an
end to violence.
Such remarks could have a profound impact on the already fragile ties between the two sides, say observers.