Jordan’s priorities are set

Friday 24/04/2015
Jordan police women at special forces drill

Amman - Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s priorities are set: Fight mili­tants in Iraq and Syria to pre­vent them from coming to his doorstep and rescue his two neighbours from slipping into lawless pariah states.
Abdullah’s number one enemy is the Islamic State (ISIS), whose lead­er Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi threatened publicly last year to kill the mon­arch and annex Jordan.
Jordan-based Western diplomats scoffed at the threat, saying that Amman’s highly qualified army, trained by the United States and Britain, is capable of defending the country and its king.
“They won’t bring an army to the border to invade Jordan be­cause they know well that Jordan is a tough nutshell to crack, not like Iraq or Syria,” one Western diplomat, whose country is part of the US-led coalition striking at ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq, told The Arab Weekly. He declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of his comments.
Still, there are numerous other dangers that the king must consider as he steers his traditionally quiet nation of nearly 7 million in a wild neighbourhood, surrounded by hot spots: Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Israel.
On the home front, Abdullah must be mindful of popular sen­timents in favour of ISIS and the second largest militant group in Syria, known as Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda.
At least 200 Jordanians stood trial in military courts since August for displaying public sympathy or disseminating articles in support of ISIS and al-Nusra Front, which Jor­dan considers terrorist groups.
The support mainly comes from the banned Salafi movement in Jor­dan, an ultraorthodox group that considers even other non-devout Muslims as infidels. In the last four years, Jordanian Salafis dispatched nearly 2,000 fighters to Syria and Iraq, where they joined ISIS or al- Nusra Front, according to the West­ern diplomat and a Jordanian secu­rity official. At least 50 of them have been killed, they said.
“It’s important that the king so­lidifies the national front through open dialogue with all the forces at play so that the young followers of less fanatic groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, would not desert it and go after the militants,” Jordani­an political commentator Moham­mad Adeeb told The Arab Weekly.
Most significant is the possible presence of ISIS sleeper cells, espe­cially among the nearly 1.5 million Syrians who fled to Jordan since the Syrian civil war began with peace­ful protests in March 2011 and de­volved into a bloody conflict.
With such a large concentration of Syrians, the risk of a spill-over of violence from Syria is also high. So is a leak from growing Palestinian- Israeli tensions over their stalled peace negotiations which could further anger Jordan’s large Pales­tinian community.
Roughly half of Jordan’s popula­tion is made up of Palestinian fami­lies and their descendants who fled or were driven out of their homes in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Of the total, nearly 2.1 million are refugees — the highest concen­tration of Palestinians outside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They loath Israel because they see it pro­crastinating in peacemaking.
While Abdullah is carefully cal­culating his steps, he was caught off guard on April 2nd. Al-Nusra Front fighters made a sudden push in southern Syria, taking over the Nasib border crossing with Jor­dan — the second and last lifeline for Syria’s government. A second crossing point, Ramtha, has been under rebel control since Septem­ber 2013.
In response, Jordan quickly sealed off its Jaber border post with Nasib and beefed up its army pres­ence along the 387-kilometre fron­tier, which has often been porous for smugglers and refugees.
Along Jordan’s 120-kilometre border with Iraq, ISIS fighters are present in areas nearly 80 kilome­tres from the Jordanian border. Jor­dan used its firepower, sending its jetfighters to push away ISIS when its fighters took control of a post near Jordan several months ago.
“We are following different tac­tics to protect ourselves and our country, including pre-emptive strikes to weaken the terrorist ISIS and dry up its funding” and to de­fend the borders when militants come close, Information Minister Mohammad Momani told The Arab Weekly.
Yemen is another preoccupation for Jordan’s monarch, who rushed to help his traditional Saudi bank­roller, joining an Arab coalition fighting Yemeni Houthi rebels since the beginning of April.
“Jordan cannot afford the high cost of war but it’s counting on the Americans and Saudis to pick up the tab because it is fighting on their behalf in Yemen, Iraq and Syr­ia,” Jordanian blogger and author of a book on ISIS Michel Haj told The Arab Weekly.
Shortly after Abdullah’s talks in Washington on February 3rd, the United States announced it will increase its annual aid to Jordan by 34% from the current $660 mil­lion to $1 billion each year for three years, starting in 2015. Jordan also receives tens of millions of dollars in annual US military assistance.
Saudi Arabia is another major donor. No aid package has been an­nounced so far this year but Riyadh gives Amman an average of $800 million a year.
Cash-strapped Jordan is saddled by nearly $30 billion in foreign debt, high unemployment, poverty and increasing energy bills for host­ing the Syrians — all factors contrib­uting to growing frustration among the youth that make them prey to militants.
Government officials say Abdul­lah sought to have the war waged on ISIS limited to an Arab coalition, excluding the United States and its allies, so that the crisis would not be internationalised. They believe that would give ammunition to Syria’s government to rally support against what it could argue as a for­eign conspiracy against it.
Jordan has conducted more than 3,000 sorties on ISIS bases in Iraq and Syria since February 5th, two days after Abdullah’s animosity with ISIS peaked when a grisly vid­eo emerged showing al-Baghdadi’s group burning alive a 26-year-old Jordanian Air Force pilot in a cage.