Amid rising regional tensions, Jordan remains safe ... for now

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

Pick any of the numerous crises in the Middle East and there is no clear-cut strategy to resolve any of them. The international community looks divided and impotent, highlighted by Libya veering into a full-scale civil war. Given the fall out, rather than ask which crisis-hit state might survive, it may be necessary to ensure no other countries join them. Doom-mongers may not be lacking for choice. Lebanon clearly has tensions, but Jordan might also be a candidate, even if it seems far off for now.

King Abdullah of Jordan was at his most energetic, briefing a visiting delegation of British members of parliament last week. He spoke at lightning pace, racing through all the regional challenges facing Jordan, and giving a taste of the diplomatic juggling act he was engaged in just to prevail in what he termed the “generational fight” against ISIL.

He pulled out a detailed map, outlining the tribal make up of Iraq, Syria and Jordan. His frenetic briefing was an echo of his travel itinerary: recently back from engaging Vladimir Putin in Moscow and about to meet Abdel Fattah El Sisi in Egypt and then on to Washington to see Barack Obama and Congressional leaders.

When you are the head of state of a country in the eye of the hurricane it is not hard to understand why he is engaged in such ceaseless activity.

To the west, the crisis in Palestine verges on a third Intifada. For the first time since the 1994 peace treaty, Jordan has recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, a consequence of mounting tensions over the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. The king’s diplomacy has shaken up the Israeli leadership and the signs are that Benjamin Netanyahu understands the need to return some degree of calm to the holy places.

The British MPs met a wide section of Jordanian politicians. The issue of Palestine was first, second and third on their list of grievances. There was general acknowledgement that the House of Commons vote calling for British recognition of Palestine had gone a little way to offset the lamentable record of “perfidious Albion”.

To the north, the Syrian crisis remains the most serious threat. Refugees continue to come across the 363-kilometre border but to a colder welcome than before.

Some 3,000 refugees are currently stuck in limbo on the border as the Jordanians slowly process their entry. These refugees are unlikely to return to their homes as Syria is no nearer the end of its all-consuming war.

The future of refugees in Jordan is becoming a far more polarising issue. Jordan claims that there are now at least 1.3 million Syrian refugees, of whom 619,000 are registered with the UN. Eighty per cent of these live outside the refugee camps and are putting increasing strains on the host communities.

The refugees are facing a triple threat. Some are about to endure their fourth winter often with inadequate shelter. The other threats are financial. At the end of November, Jordan took the drastic step of cancelling free health care provision to refugees citing financial difficulties. Compounding this, the World Food Programme (WFP) briefly suspended its direct food assistance programme affecting 12,000 families.

How does Jordan react? The king is determined to search for a political solution to Syria as well as improving ties with the new government in Iraq. He also has to appeal to the international community, something its officials are well versed in.

Aside from the scale and costs of the refugee crisis, Jordanian security is fearful of extremist infiltration.

The threat from ISIL is both an external and an internal threat. ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra are close to the border with Jordan but there are also adherents inside the kingdom, not least in cities like Ma’an, Zarqa and Rusayfa.

Some 2,000 Jordanians are believed to have joined groups inside Syria and some are returning. Interior minister, Hussein Al Majali is crystal clear that security concerns have to come before Jordan’s humanitarian obligations to the refugees.

Only in June, Jordan introduced a law giving authorities powers to jail “citizens who lend ideological and recruitment support to terrorist organisations”.

King Abdullah describes this threat from extremism as a “third world war by other means”. He was clear that it must be Arabs and Muslims who led efforts to confront terrorism and extremism with the support of international community. For him it was vital that the US and the EU were not perceived as leading in this. His wife, Queen Rania, believes that “extremists historically always rely on the complacency of moderates. They think we’re not going to do anything and they mobilise”.

Jordan remains stable but a violent crisis is far from inconceivable. Given the tensions in the country, some have wondered why it has not happened so far.

There are a variety of reasons. Firstly, the king maintains the complete loyalty of the armed forces and the security services. He appears widely respected. Secondly, all Jordanians look to the north and fear that this could happen to them. No Jordanian wants to see a Syrian scenario in their country.

Thirdly, the king and the authorities were extremely careful in handling protests in 2011, wary of inflaming the situation by the use of lethal force and of making the errors of the Syrian regime. Finally, there is no clear-cut sectarian rift within Jordan for regional players to use to create tensions.

These factors have held Jordan together against a welter of dangerous trends and threats, symptoms of crisis beyond its borders. But containment can only work for so long.

Certainly the Jordanian authorities have options but greater external support is needed more than ever. Ultimately what Jordan needs more than anything is at least calm in Palestine and genuine international efforts to resolve the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, but time is running out.

Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding

Published: December 13, 2014 04:00 AM

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