Israel transfers 16 Cobra helicopters to Jordan
Amman - Israel’s transfer of 16 retired US-supplied Cobra combat helicopters to Jordan is the first deal of its kind and underlines a shifting dynamic in the volatile Middle East, where nations face the common threat of Islamic militancy.
Situated in a precarious corner of the Middle East bordering Saudi Arabia, Egypt and hotspots Iraq, Syria, the West Bank and Israel, Jordan provides a buffer for the Jewish state from other Arab countries. The countries share a 238-km border.
Jordan is traditionally a moderate country with a pro-US outlook. The kingdom is a long-time key Arab ally of the United States and an active member of its global war on terrorism. Amman provides Washington with logistics, exchanges intelligence data and even translates interrogations of Arabic-speaking militants.
In return, Washington is the largest donor to cash-strapped Jordan, spending an estimated $1.2 billion annually to keep the country’s fragile economy afloat. Jordan lacks the oil riches of neighbouring Gulf Arab states and is saddled with a record deficit of $30 billion.
The extent of Washington’s keenness to maintain stability in Jordan was manifested three years ago, when it dispatched anti-missile Patriot batteries to Jordan along with US military personnel to fend off any possible missile attack coming from Jordan’s mightier Syrian neighbour.
Prior to their 1994 peace treaty — Israel’s second with an Arab nation after Egypt — Jordan and Israel were formally in a state of war. But even then, their border was peaceful as both sides helped each other foil attacks by armed Palestinian groups in line with discreet security ties dating from the late 1960s.
Despite cordial relations and mutual trust, Israel and Jordan have never had any military deals before. Israel had previously objected to US gestures to broker weapons or aircraft deals with Arabs fearing it might give them a military edge.
“Yesterday’s enemies are today’s friends,” retired Jordanian army General Qassem Saleh said.
“When nations have a common threat, they tend to come closer towards each other,” Saleh added. But he stressed that Israel’s trust “is yet to be tested in the future because this is an insignificant deal which is in no way a threat to Israel itself”.
He noted that Jordan took delivery of all the 16 combat helicopters from Israel with Washington’s approval. It brings the total number of Cobras in the kingdom to 56, he said.
The handover was initiated last year and completed recently, Saleh added. “The helicopters will certainly bolster Jordanian border security in the face of militant threats coming from Syria and Iraq,” Saleh said. He specifically referred to at least six attempts by Islamic State (ISIS) militants to create chaos on the Syrian and Iraqi borders with Jordan as a step towards a possible offensive. Jordan shares a 375-kilometre northern border with Syria and 181-kilometre frontier with Iraq to the east. ISIS reigns in Iraq’s Anbar province, a vast desert on the Jordanian frontier. Other militant groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Nusra Front, are close to Jordan’s northern border with Syria.
Israel has pledged to step in should Jordan be threatened by ISIS or other militants.
Saleh said should the need arise, Jordan can use its Cobra squadrons to back ground troops with aerial surveillance and machine gun and rocket fire. He said the aircraft are nimble enough to elude surface-to-air missiles. The former general declined to say where his information on the deal came from, but he is known to maintain close ties with the Jordanian Armed Forces.
The Pentagon and Israeli officials declined to comment. So did officials in Jordan, which favours quiet diplomacy and clandestine military moves. But a Jordan-based Western diplomat confirmed the deal to The Arab Weekly. The diplomat noted that Washington provided mechanical overhauls of the aircraft before they were donated to Jordan.
Saleh said Jordan had three squadrons of Cobras, each consisting of 12 to 16 helicopters. “A handful of the helicopters we have need either spare parts or mechanical repair, which can be used from the incoming helicopters,” he said.
Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq hosted in July US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, who offered reassurances about the regional fight against ISIS and the July 14th international deal curbing Iran’s nuclear programme.