Jordan blighted by ISIS threat, economic woes
Amman - Recent events should constitute a sobering wake-up call to anyone who had doubts about the extent of the Islamic State’s threat to Jordan.
Jordanian border patrols killed 12 men and wounded others who were attempting to infiltrate from Syria on January 23rd. The casualties were among 36 armed men hauling more than 2 million narcotic pills into the kingdom.
Officials declined to say whether the men were Islamic State (ISIS) militants but pointed clearly in that direction, calling them “terrorists”.
A month earlier, Jordanian patrols at the Syrian border exchanged gunfire with a group of infiltrators said to be affiliated with ISIS. In previous months, there were many similar attempts in which Jordanian troops detected, arrested or killed scores of infiltrators, also said to be ISIS jihadists.
ISIS regards Jordan’s government as an “unbeliever” and regularly denounces it for its ties with Israel and the United States. The group has released several statements threatening Jordan’s moderate ruler, King Abdullah II, and vowed to topple the monarchy.
To prove it makes good on its threats, ISIS burned alive a Jordanian Air Force lieutenant in a cage in January 2015, days after his jetfighter was downed over Syria and he was captured.
Over Jordan’s eastern border in Iraq, ISIS controls various cities in the vast desert province of Anbar. Jihadists, only about 70km east of the Jordanian border, have repeatedly attempted attacks on the Iraqi side of the border post.
In Syria to the north, a Jordan-backed and US-trained and equipped force of “moderate” Syrian tribesmen, called the Southern Front, forms a buffer between the kingdom and ISIS as well as other militants, such as al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
“ISIS exists everywhere,” Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi said. “It’s more like a myth that is entrenched in the hearts and minds of many young people, frustrated by the lack of opportunities and have nothing to lose if they adopt the fanatics’ doctrine.”.
But the near future looks bleak.
Economically, Jordan is faced with dire economic conditions caused by overspending and foreign borrowing to cope with an influx of 1.3 million Syrian and 300,000 Iraqi refugees. Unemployment is already high and Jordan is considering absorbing more Syrians into its labour force.
Tourism, Jordan’s largest source of hard currency, has come to a virtual standstill. Investment, which cash-strapped Jordan banks on for currency reserves to shore up its finances, declined from $3.1 billion to $1.5 billion a year over the past few years.
As poverty affects 20% of the population of 6.6 million, Jordan admits it spent nearly $7 billion on Syrian refugees. Billions more were spent on an estimated 2.2 million Palestinians and their descendants displaced in two wars with Israel since its creation in 1948.
Politically, Jordan weathered the “Arab spring” by launching reforms that saw at least 30% of its constitution amended to give more powers to the legislature and reduce the powers of the king. Other reforms saw wider freedoms for women and greater government tolerance to adversaries, the freedom of speech, expression and public assembly.
Still, the country is in political disarray having 23 splintered political parties with diverse ideologies ranging from Muslim fundamentalists to Marxists, which have failed to produce alternatives to government policies. The parties are also unable to compete for parliamentary elections, which largely depend on tribal affiliation and family connections.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s largest and most organised political group, has lost much of its grass-roots appeal since the parent party in Egypt failed to improve living conditions.
Now, the brotherhood could split into smaller parties. Some officials fear the splintered and smaller groups may join ISIS or form militant sleeper cells.
Jordan is a key Arab ally of the United States, which has contributed more than $10 billion to Jordan in the past decade. The country also maintains ties with Israel under a peace treaty signed in 1994, Israel’s second signed treaty with an Arab country after Egypt
Jordanian political analyst Oraib al-Rantawi said the ISIS threat to largely stable Jordan was “real and imminent”.
“We can’t afford the luxury of just waiting and monitoring,” he said. “The danger is strategic and getting closer.”