AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan hopes a cease-fire it helped negotiate in neighboring southern Syria will eventually lead to a secure border, the reopening of a vital trade crossing and a gradual return home for Syrian war refugees who sought asylum in the kingdom.
For now, these goals seem out of reach as key security concerns remain unanswered.
Fighting has decreased significantly in southern Syria —a patchwork of areas under government or rebel control — since the truce was negotiated by Russia, the United States and Jordan in July.
But Jordan still seeks guarantees from Syrian President Bashar Assad and his backers, Russia and Iran, that moderate opposition fighters and civilians will not be harmed as government forces continue to advance in the southeast, despite the truce. The pro-Western monarchy also wants to see Iranian-backed forces kept away from Jordan’s border, and is concerned about a potential resurgence of extremist opposition groups.
Jordan has received “mixed messages” about Assad’s intentions, one official said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. He said Jordan fears destabilization and renewed refugee flows if Assad opts for retaliation.
Despite a slight rise in returns, Syrian refugees in Jordan also seem to be hedging their bets. The U.N. refugee agency said 1,830 refugees returned voluntarily to Syria in July and August, compared to 1,700 between January and June.
Separately, aid officials have said Jordan has deported Syrian refugees — about 400 a month since the beginning of 2017, according to a report on Monday by the group Human Rights Watch.
A Jordanian official previously acknowledged that some refugees were being deported on security grounds, without providing a number, but denied they were being expelled without recourse. The government said in a statement on Monday that the return of refugees is voluntary and that Jordan complies with international law.
Abdulrahman al-Ahmad, 32, went back to his opposition-held hometown of Busra al-Sham in Syria’s southern Daraa province, worn out by five years in exile. It’s a one-way ticket for most, since Jordan generally bars re-entry of those who left.
With his house destroyed, al-Ahmad now lives with displaced people in another building. Residents have one hour of electricity per day and buy water from private wells at exorbitant prices, he said. Jobs are scarce and medical care largely unavailable, including for his 3-year-old son who needs a nose operation.
He said he would fight if government forces retake his hometown.
“The regime killed my cousin, my brother, my relatives,” he said. “I can’t accept this.”
The U.N. refugee agency “signs out” Syrians who want to leave Jordan, but it does not promote returns, deemed too risky for civilians at this time.
“It’s too early to speak about returning,” said Anders Pedersen, a top U.N. official in Jordan.
The “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria was the first to be carved out in Russia-led negotiations, with similar efforts under way in other parts of Syria, including with the involvement of Turkey in the northwest.
Russia portrays such zones as a tool for gradually ending the civil war, now in its seventh year.
Some say the deal in southern Syria cannot set a precedent for other areas.
“The main reason to be even cautiously optimistic about the south — basically, a set of motivated neighboring countries with the right great power allies — just doesn’t exist elsewhere,” said Sam Heller of the New York-based Century Foundation think tank.
The Russian-led process of negotiating de-escalation zones is ultimately harmful to the U.S. and its allies, said Genevieve Casagrande, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War think tank in Washington.
The terms of the southern Syria truce don’t necessarily prevent a buildup of pro-Iranian forces and give an inadvertent opening to al-Qaida-linked fighters to regroup there, she said.
Al-Qaida’s potentially disruptive role is not being considered fully, she said.
The main trade crossing between the two countries plays a key role in ongoing negotiations over arrangements in southern Syria. Jordan closed the crossing in 2015, after rebels seized the Syrian part.
The closure dealt a blow to Jordanian trade, but the kingdom seems to be in no rush to reopen it. King Abdullah II said last month that the border would only reopen “when the right security conditions materialize on the ground.”
Jordan has said it will only deal with Syrian government representatives at the crossing, which remains in rebel hands. A government takeover of the crossing would require the agreement of rebel groups suspicious of Assad’s intentions.
Another concern is the fate of two opposition militias — the Eastern Lions and the Martyr Ahmed al-Abdo group — that were fighting Islamic State extremists in southeastern Syria and are now being pushed back by the government.
Jordan has been urging Syria and Russia to ensure the safety of several thousand fighters.
Saeed Seif, a spokesman for the Ahmed al-Abdo group, said the rebels have no faith in amnesty promises. Even if a Syrian government takeover of the south were to provide stability for some returning civilians, he said, rebels and their families won’t be safe.
“There is no way they will let us live,” he said.
“They will say we’ve fought against the government. They call us terrorists, even though we’ve been fighting Daesh for years,” Seif said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “They will force us to lay down our weapons, or else they bomb the city, or else we leave. Where will we go?”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Syrians who don’t trust the “de-escalation” remain in a chaotic desert camp on the Jordanian border, short on food, water and medical aid.
Hundreds of thousands more refugees are staying put in Jordan, waiting to see what happens to those who risked a return home.
A 53-year-old Syrian man, who spent three-and-a-half years with his family in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, returned to the village of Nawa, also in Daraa province, as soon as he heard his hometown was becoming safer after the July cease-fire.
“I didn’t want to leave Syria in the first place,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions for his relatives in government-controlled areas.
Now he is working on his family’s land, living in a home that is damaged, but his own. There is little electricity and water is expensive, he said, but there are no airstrikes for now.
“If the airstrikes come back, I will surrender my life to God like all the remaining people,” he said.