Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—As a neighbor to both Syria, a state engulfed in a civil war, and Israel and the occupied West Bank, the kingdom of Jordan is more subject than most to the pressures and strains of regional crises and conflicts, especially the massive influx of Syrian refugees into its territory.
This is to say nothing of its own struggles with domestic instability, as Jordan’s ruling Hashemite monarchy attempts to come to terms with economic problems, the events of the Arab Spring, and the demands of its subjects for political reform. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Jordan’s Minister for Information, Samih Maaytah, about the Syrian refugee crisis, the recent changes in Jordan’s political system, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the upcoming visit of President Obama.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Are you capable of meeting the needs of the influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan? How is the Jordanian government coping so far?
Samih Maaytah: The greatest problem in the case of our Syrian brothers is that until now there has been no clear prospect of a resolution to the [refugee] crisis. The number of Syrian refugees is increasing by the hour. This is taking place in the absence of any international framework to provide any real help.
It is therefore up to Jordan to bear this burden. We are facing two difficult options: Firstly, to continue to host our Syrian brothers, however we have insufficient capabilities to bear this escalating burden. Secondly, to close our borders, however this is something that we don’t want to do. Therefore, we hope that the international community’s response is commensurate with this crisis. We hope that there are prospects for a political solution to that will stop the flow of Syrians [into Jordan] and open the door for the return of all refugees to their home country.
Q: We have heard calls in Jordan’s parliament for borders to be closed to displaced Syrians seeking refuge. Is this a possibility?
Parliament was talking about one aspect of the issue, albeit an important aspect represented by the impact that this influx of refugees has had on the people of Jordan, particularly as the country is in the midst of an economic crisis. The people of Jordan are also debating this. However, everybody in Jordan is well aware of the extent of the suffering of our Syrian brothers, and we want to continue to carry out our Arab and humanitarian duty towards them. Despite this, the world must not ignore the escalating nature of this crisis and its impact on Jordan and the Jordanian people. The government is not talking about closing the borders, but Jordan is a country with limited capabilities suffering from difficult economic circumstances.
Q: What role is Jordan playing in Syria at the moment? Is the Jordanian government in contact with Damascus or the Syrian rebels?
Since the beginning of the crisis until today, Jordan has taken a clear stance: a political solution is the only way to end the crisis. Jordan has worked and continued to work with all parties in an attempt to achieve this. However, Jordan’s special circumstances, owing to the country’s geographical location, means that it is dealing with everybody according to our national concerns. There are interests that Jordan and the Jordanian people hold and it is our duty to protect these. There are also new elements in the Syrian equation that we cannot ignore.
Q: King Abdullah II of Jordan is currently in the midst of a state visit to Turkey. Will he be discussing the Syrian crisis during this visit?
There can be no doubt that Syria will be the most prominent topic in the King’s discussions in Turkey. This was also the most important topic during the King’s recent visit to Moscow. Jordan and Turkey are both neighbors of Syria and among the countries that are hosting Syrian brothers [who have fled the fighting].
Q: Following a relative lull, the popular movements in Jordan have begun their activities once more, while the recent parliamentary elections failed to draw a line under this issue. Will we see a new dialogue between the government and the opposition to resolve their differences, such as the election law?
When the King opened the House of Representatives a month ago, he called on parliament
to focus on two important issues.
Firstly, a comprehensive review of the election law including strengthening political party operation and working to achieve broader consensus. The King even admitted that the election law is not ideal. The second issue is for the House of Representatives to be a national incubator for dialogue on diverse issues. I believe that all contentious issues will be discussed by the House of Representatives, which is the representative of the people. It is also the legislative authority through which legislation can be amended.
Q: What’s your view of the parliamentary consultations being conducted by Jordan’s Royal Court chief over choosing the country’s next prime minister? Is this the beginning of the establishment of a parliamentary system?
These consultations are a message that the King wants to send about his desire to grant the House of Representatives a role in building a parliamentary government. This is the first step and something that should not be dismissed, particularly as it is taking place before the infrastructure for the operation of political parties in parliament exists. This is a necessary starting point, and is like a military exercise conducted with live ammunition, but in democratic politics. The further the House of Representatives moves towards a functioning system of contesting political parties, the better the results will be. This is also a message about the commitment of the ruling regime towards further reform.
Q: President Obama is expected to visit the region later this year, including Jordan. There have also been reports that Jordan will host a tripartite summit between Obama, Netanyahu, and Abbas. Is this true?
The US president’s tour is important and this will likely coincide with the formation of a new Israeli government. Jordan hopes to lead the way in reviving the peace process after Israeli policy brought it to a halt. In fact, Tel Aviv has placed obstacles on the ground that hinders any solution that would grant the Palestinian people their rights, first and foremost the establishment of a fully sovereign state
Jordan has worked and will continue to work to revive the peace process. Early last year, we hosted negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis. We will support any path to revive the negotiations to support our Palestinian brothers and restore their rights.
Jerusalem and its holy Islamic and Christian sites are also being targeted by a systematic Israeli campaign to impose its own authority over religious affairs. This campaign aims to displace the people and confiscate the land, while Jordan is using all the means at its disposal to protect the holy sites. We are playing a large role in this and it is our duty to protect the holy shrines and confront Israel’s attempts to impose its authority. Jerusalem is an ever-present issue on the agenda of the Jordanian leadership, not just in terms of politics and diplomacy, but also day-to-day work. This is not to mention the Jordanian organization that works to take care of the holy shrines that have a special place in the hearts of our people.