US support tops agenda as Jordan’s King Abdullah meets Obama

Amman struggling to cope with strains placed on economy by Syrian refugees and threats posed by Islamist extremists and civil war in Syria.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, second from right, with US senator Saxby Chambliss, right, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, second from left,  and senator John McCain at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 2, 2014. Saul Loeb / AFP
King Abdullah II of Jordan, second from right, with US senator Saxby Chambliss, right, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, second from left, and senator John McCain at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 2, 2014. Saul Loeb / AFP

NEW YORK // Jordan’s King Abdullah II meets Barack Obama at the White House on Friday seeking increased US support as the country struggles with the flow of refugees from Syria, threats from ISIL extremists and a failing economy.

The US president has already nearly doubled economic and military aid to Jordan since 2011, as its importance as a regional ally has only increased since the Middle East became engulfed in upheaval. However, he will likely ask a reluctant Jordan for a larger role in the US-led coalition against ISIL as more assistance is considered.

The talks will include “efforts to counter ISIL and find a political solution in Syria, provide humanitarian assistance to refugees from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and take steps to calm tensions in Jerusalem”, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.

At the top of the agenda will likely be securing additional US money, a topic King Abdullah has already discussed with members of Congress in Washington this week.

When the two leaders met in February, Mr Obama pledged US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in loan guarantees, in addition to more than $1bn in aid approvedby Congress for the 2014 fiscal year.

But more aid may be needed to keep Jordan stable.

The UN refugee agency says Jordan is host to more than 600,000 Syrians, who compete for goods and services with Jordanians and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. The US has so far given Jordan $268m to assist the Syrian refugees.

The kingdom also faces severe budget deficits that caused its credit rating to be downgraded last year.

Unemployment among youth, already susceptible to radicalisation, is about 30 per cent.

Mr Obama and King Abdullah might also discuss the renegotiation of a five-year US aid agreement that expires this fiscal year, under which Jordan received $660m annually – almost half of which was earmarked for the military.

“It’s important to both sides that the encounter not only looks like a meeting of allies, but actually produces agreement on the key issues facing both leaders,” said Steven Simon, the senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House from 2011 through 2012, and now with the Middle East Institute think tank. “So I’d expect the meeting to be both cordial and productive, even if the two leaders can’t meet every request that the other brings to the meeting.”

The US-led coalition’s war against ISIL in Syria and Iraq will also be a central focus of the meeting. Jordan has so far tried to balance its support for Syrian rebels backed by its allies with the danger of provoking Bashar Al Assad and of radical Islamists filling the vacuum if his regime falls, Mr Simon said.

There are also influential Jordanians with economic interests tied to the Syrian regime, another factor in Jordan’s policy.

Too much overt support for the fight against ISIL also risks a violent backlash. The group has vowed to overthrow the king and has reportedly dedicated $3m to recruit young Jordanians.

More than 2,000 have already fought with the group in Syria and Iraq.

“This is an issue that leaves Jordanian decision makers somewhat divided,” Mr Simon said. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”

But that position may be becoming less ambiguous as frustration mounts in Amman at the US strategy against ISIL in Syria, where airstrikes have blunted its momentum but have not significantly weakened them or addressed the underlying political causes of their rise.

“The Jordanians have provided air support, and they provided some assistance, but no boots directly on the ground, but I think that’s the next discussion that has to take place with the United States and the coalition forces”, congressman Rob Wittman said last month after a trip to Jordan.

So far, Jordan has sought to play down its role in helping Syrian rebels, despite reports that it hosts a small CIA-run training programme. Mr Obama may ask King Abdullah for a larger role in training the rebels, as a $500m programme awaiting congressional approval eventually gets under way.

“The Jordanians can’t really afford to alienate the US on this score, but the issue is how much and how enthusiastic,” Mr Simon said.

The king will likely also ask Mr Obama to pressure Israel over its increasingly hardline policies towards the Palestinians, which has provoked unrest in the West Bank and raised the prospects of another intifada.

If an intifada broke out it would likely send more Palestinian refugees into Jordan, which the kingdom can ill afford. It could also inflame domestic politics in Jordan, where more than half of the population is Palestinian. Jordan withdrew its ambassador to Israel last month.

“They have to look to the US to convince Israel to take whatever steps are necessary to defuse growing anger in the West Bank,” Mr Simon said.

But with new elections slated and an ever rightward tilt in Israeli public opinion that has even farther right parties gaining on Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in opinion polls this week, it will be “an uphill climb for the US to do that”.

Published: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM


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