AMMAN (Reuters) - U.S. ally Jordan threatened on Thursday to expel Syria’s ambassador after he warned the kingdom that Syrian missiles could be used against Patriot batteries due to be deployed soon along their border.
Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh told state news agency Petra that Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman, a former general and intelligence chief who is a member of President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect’s ruling inner circle, had violated diplomatic protocol.
“The Syrian ambassador has breached all norms and diplomatic practices by his behavior ... This is considered as a final warning to abide by the rules of diplomatic practice and to stop any meetings or statements that are deemed harmful to Jordan,’ Joudeh said.
Jordan maintains an embassy in Damascus and has avoided publicly supporting Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, calling instead for a political solution to a war that has cost over 100,000 lives.
Jordanian officials told Reuters they took special offence to posts on social media networks by Suleiman warning that advanced Soviet-designed Alexander missiles could target the kingdom when the U.S. military deploys at least two Patriot missile batteries later this month.
“This was almost like a war threat. This is totally unacceptable,” said one senior official.
Jordan and Syria’s other neighbors are increasingly nervous the Syrian civil war will spill over its borders and ignite a regional conflict.
Officials fear Assad’s wrath after he threatened Jordan last April that it would be “playing with fire” if it supported rebels. The country’s powerful neighbor has a record of sending agents to destabilize the kingdom during past tensions.
Patriots are interceptor weapons designed to shoot down hostile missiles. Jordan wants to guard against any missile attack from Syria and has asked for Washington’s help to bolster security. Fierce clashes have erupted in Syria close to the border.
On Thursday Jordan’s army said it had foiled an attempt to smuggle a large quantity of arms from Syria into Jordan, without giving details.
An official told Reuters that the statement underlined growing tensions between two neighbors who are ideologically far apart, with Assad’s Syria an Iranian backed republic and King Abdullah’s Jordan a U.S.-allied monarchy that has made peace with Israel.
Washington said it would be making Patriot batteries and advanced F-16 fighter jets available for annual war games scheduled later this month in the kingdom.
The United States announced in April it was dispatching over 200 army planners to Jordan.
Suleiman accused Jordan of hosting thousands of radical Islamist “terrorists” who were sent to fight Assad’s forces and of providing a haven for hundreds of Syrian army defectors, training them to go back and join the rebels.
Jordan has long denied hosting U.S.-led training of Syrian rebels and security sources say they are always on the alert against Islamist radicals seeking to cross the border.
“Any future behavior in this regard by the ambassador will result in taking immediate diplomatic measures according to practiced norms and practices, including considering him ‘persona non grata’ on Jordanian soil,” Joudeh said.
Suleiman drew parallels between Jordan’s deployment of Patriots and their deployment in Turkey earlier this year.
“The arrival of the Patriots in Turkey and stationing them on the border was a bad omen for the government of (Turkish Prime Minister) Tayyip Erdogan and we don’t wish the same fate for those counting on the Patriots, “ Suleiman said, referring to anti-government protests in Turkey.
This was viewed as a threat coming from an accredited ambassador whose post required he did not meddle in the internal affairs of his host country, Jordanian officials said.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Andrew Roche and Cynthia Osterman