Jordan – A Fragile Oasis in a Desert Storm

Sep 2nd, 2014 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates

Expert panel discusses ability of Jordan to withstand the “buffeting winds of the region”

By Andrew E. Harrod – EXCLUSIVE to Religious Freedom Coalition

(Washington, DC) “Will Jordan,” a “significant and longtime American ally” in the Middle East, “be able to withstand the various…buffeting winds in the region,” the Hudson Institute’s Lee Smith asked while leading an August 26 panel there.  The panelists discussed how Jordan’s unique stability faced increasing threats from a region riven by sectarian violence and brutal despots.

Can King Abdullah keep his nearly bankrupt nation intact with half the population refugees from conflict and ISIL at his doorstep?

Can King Abdullah keep his nearly bankrupt nation intact with half the population refugees from conflict and ISIL at his doorstep?

The “United States cannot afford to let fail” its Jordanian “strategic partner,” the Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani assessed.  Thus Jordanians “get a lot of money” from the United States with rare bipartisan support, David Schenker from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed.  Jordan’s 2013 American aid exceeded $1 billion, including $360 million and $300 million of economic and military aid, respectively, $200 million supplemental cash, and $140 million to nearly one million Syrian refugees, Schenker has calculated.  American aid allows for an effective Jordanian border control with Iraq, Itani elaborated, although a “free for all” exists on Jordan’s Syrian border.  President Barack Obama’s “administration, at least on this issue, is doing the right thing,” Schenker concluded.

Jordanian journalist Salameh Nematt noted that Saudi Arabia and strong Israeli military and intelligence contacts support Jordan as well, Schenker observed.  Yet nearly half Jordan’s population has Palestinian ancestry amidst high rates of intermarriage among Jordanians from all backgrounds, Nematt noted.  Particularly given anger over recent Israeli military action against Gaza, many Jordanians desires a more “hostile” policy towards Israel, however much this would damage Jordan’s national interest.  While Jordanian companies have concluded agreements for Israeli natural gas deliveries (as an “offset,” the Jordanian government has sought to buy Gaza natural gas by 2017), some Jordanians reject even current Israeli water deliveries, Schenker noted.

The short-term “threat is limited” to Jordan from the emerging Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), argued Itani with Nematt’s concurrence.  ISIS is not “going to pull a Mosul” in Jordan, Schenker elaborated on Itani’s assessment of Jordanian security forces, as these are loyal and well equipped, given the 13% of Jordan’s budget spent on security forces.  Indeed, Jordanian F-16s have already bombed ISIS in Iraq.

For most Jordanian’s their country’s monarchy, meanwhile, is “something they can live with,” judged Itani.  Most Jordanians see no better political alternative to the monarchy, Nematt concurred, and some ISIS support in Jordan might be more protest in nature.  Instability in Jordan’s neighbors, meanwhile, inclines Jordanians towards their country’s stability, Schenker noted.

Lacking “sectarian fault lines” also favor Jordan, Itani added, although some intra-Arab ethnic divisions exist.  While Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned in 2004 of a “Shiite crescent” that is now engulfed in violence with Sunnis across Iraq and Syria, overwhelmingly Sunni Jordan “is lucky that it does not have this problem,” Nematt noted.  The “geography of the Syrian civil war” has also helped distance Jordan from sectarian threats, as the more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA), not ISIS and other extremist groups, has predominated along Jordan’s Syrian border.

Abdullah, meanwhile, has warned of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as retrograde “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who “behind closed doors” want to overthrow his monarchy while creating a regional “Muslim Brotherhood crescent.”  Western ideas of MB being the “only way you can have democracy” among Muslims are naïve.  Such concerns explain in part why the Jordanian government has repressed political opposition and stalled electoral reform, as discussed by Nematt and Schenker.  A “rubber stamp” parliament has not rejected a government bill for years, Nematt noted, and the executive sometimes simply acts without legislative consent.

Yet Jordan has traditionally allowed some political activity such that the Jordanian MB can express grievances, Itani noted.  “Extremely dangerous,” by contrast, would be a repression of MB such that its followers would turn to groups like ISIS, Nematt warned.  For the moment, moreover, Jordan’s MB has suffered marginalization since the Egyptian military overthrew MB leader Muhammad Morsi’s presidency, Schenker added.

Jordan’s “disenfranchised” and refugee populations will not necessarily remain “docile,” however, Itani worried.  Jordan’s tribal opposition forces, for example, had taken to calling Abdullah Ali Baba, as corruption in his monarchy reminded of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights’ tale of the forty thieves.  Schenker emphasized Jordan’s poor economy with an estimated 30% unemployment as a central issue exacerbated by refugee needs, problems that could only worsen as conflict to the north persists.  Syrian refugees are “taking the food out of our mouths,” one Jordanian told Schenker, foretelling an “eventual backlash” against them, particularly if their presence becomes long-term.

Jordan for now is a “leading supplier” (Schenker) and “net exporter of fighters” (Itani) for jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.  Most of these Jordanians have joined the Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), not ISIS, Itani clarified.  Yet JN “is not ideologically dissimilar” from ISIS, thus the two could ultimately merge.

ISIS is a “state building enterprise” aiming for a caliphate, something that has “deep appeal to disenfranchised Sunnis worldwide,” although “it is difficult to take it seriously” now.  Nematt noted ISIS’ acceptance among large sections of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni populations alienated by Shiite-dominated regimes there, in contrast to the small terrorist group AQ.  Absorbed with its own development and facing only Western containment strategies, ISIS is currently unconcerned with Jordan, Itani explained.

Long term, though, ISIS “will develop the potential to seriously challenge Jordan.”  Younger Middle East generations in particular look to groups like ISIS as a solution for failing societies in contrast to more cautious older generations.  MB “turned out to be a complete failure,” Nematt explained, but ISIS currently appears successful.  While Jordan in the past could expel a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that “had become embedded in Jordan,” Itani worries about ISIS’ creativity being “qualitatively different” from the militarily inefficient PLO.

Even now security incidents linked to the conflict to Jordan’s north regularly appear in the Jordanian press, Schenker observed, and the Jordanian military has clashed in the past with jihadists trying infiltrate across the Syrian border.  Although ISIS is not popular in Jordan, “martyr weddings” honoring jihadists killed in Iraq and Syria have occurred in Jordan as well as the killing of a murtad or apostate in a Palestinian refugee camp.  “God willing, he will return a martyr,” a family told Schenker about their son who went to Syria.

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Iranian “regional meddling” (Schenker) loomed large in the panelists’ consideration of current Middle East crises.  Groups like ISIS and JN are a “product of the Iranian role in the region” that has supported Iran’s fellow Shiites obtain dominance over Sunnis with regimes in Iraq and Syria, Nematt analyzed.  Iran has also supported Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militia and the Sunni MB affiliate Hamas attacking Israel from the Gaza Strip while seeking to destabilize the Gulf States of Shiite-majority Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.  “The Gulf States look at Israel as less of a problem than Iran,” Nematt observed.  Sunni Arab states, meanwhile, undermined Iraqi stability by opposing the rising political power of that country’s Shiite majority after the fall of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein dictatorship, thereby inciting counterbalancing Iranian influence.

Iran’s various regional challenges demanded a comprehensive response, Nematt judged.  Itani concurrently noted the need to consider Sunni grievances against Shiite-dominated regimes in Iraq and Syria.  “Very wise” in Nematt’s view was the Obama Administration’s demand that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, known for his Shiite sectarianism and support from Iran, resign before American military forces engaged ISIS.

The rise of ISIS, JN, and other jihadist groups, though, calls into question American aid for rebels fighting for the overthrow of Bashar Assad’s Syrian dictatorship, an Iranian ally.  The FSA is “of course in trouble in Syria,” Itani assessed in discussing a group that had often been a hope for individuals like Itani seeking non-jihadist forces to remove Assad.  Syria’s “moderate opposition” has received Jordanian support in the past, even when the Assad regime allowed terrorists to stage attacks on Jordan from Syria, Schenker, another past FSA supporter, observed.  Abdullah also called for Assad to leave power in 2011.

Worries about Sunni jihadists replacing Assad noted by Schenker, though, have recently moved Jordanian policy towards neutrality in Syria’s civil war.  Such a shift reflects Nematt’s remorse already expressed in 2007 for his earlier support of America’s Iraqi regime change, a democratization project ultimately unsustainable by a tumultuous Iraq.  Even some Syrian Sunnis support Assad’s regime.  Turkey, by contrast, has been indiscriminate in supporting Syria’s rebels, Schenker noted, with Turkish border towns resembling Pakistan’s Peshawar during the 1980s mujahedeen struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Schenker noted a 2013 agreement for Russia to build two nuclear energy reactors in Jordan by 2022, something that will only raise the stakes for Jordan’s stability.  Christian communities facing extermination from ISIS and other groups, meanwhile, received no mention from the panel, to the chagrin of Religious Freedom Coalition Chairman William J. Murray in the audience.  Jordan’s position amidst the Middle East’s shifting political sands remains precarious.



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