Jordan’s priorities are set
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.