A Friend in Need
As Syria implodes, the United States and its allies need to help Jordan help itself.
The civil war in Syria continues to reap carnage on its civilian population with ever increasing ferocity and seemingly no end in sight. Last week, following reports from British, French, and Israeli officials, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on opposition forces. This has sparked a debate on whether a "red line" has been crossed in the conflict and further, how and by what means should the White House respond. To date, the United States — while publicly endorsing the removal of President Bashar al-Assad — has wisely avoided direct intervention in the conflict, preferring to limit aid to opposition groups in the form of humanitarian and non-lethal assistance. But as the drumbeat to a more aggressive intervention gathers steam, the number of experts calling for a sit-back-and-observe approach seems to be falling. And yet anyone with even a remedial knowledge of the Middle East can see the powder keg that is Syria today; there simply is no silver bullet to deal with the outfall from this continuing crisis.
There’s one place, though, in which the United States should be getting involved that has only upside. Among many troubling trends of the Syrian civil war has been the creation of enormous amounts of refugees in countries that are ill equipped to handle them. Lebanon and Turkey have absorbed more than 750,000 refugees, but no place has felt the brunt of Syria’s huge population displacement as much as Jordan. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 450,000 Syrians are now registered as refugees residing in Jordan. Unofficially, the numbers are far higher. In rough terms, the refugees in Jordan now comprise approximately 10 percent of the total population and these numbers are expected to continue to increase in the coming months, with some projections forecasting nearly 1 million registered refugees by the end of the year. For a sense of scale, consider 30 million displaced Mexicans crossing into the United States from its southern border.
On his recent trip to the Middle East, President Barack Obama pledged an additional $200 million in aid to the Jordanian government as it attempts to cope with the estimated billion-dollar cost that the crisis will add to the already challenged Jordanian economy. The true cost of this most recent refugee population residing in Jordan is incalculable, and threatens to destabilize a country already grappling with its own burgeoning youth population. The crisis in Syria represents, as Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said on April 15, "a threat to national security."
This warning should not be taken lightly, nor for granted.
Jordan has never been more important to the United States and to its regional allies than now. Amman’s calm hand has been among the biggest contributors to regional peace and security — a fact often under-appreciated by Israel’s supporters in Washington, D.C. King Abdullah II will be integral to any hope of reviving and moving forward peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Meanwhile, Jordan continues to be a critical player alongside U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates, a particularly pressing concern given that jihadis are active participants in the rebel fight. And given instability in Egypt and unrest in many other Arab countries, the United States needs Jordan more than ever.
The Arab Spring was largely a product of unemployment and economic problems. Jordan suffers from both of these problems for a variety of reasons, including its large Palestinian refugee population and its lack of natural resources, compared to many of its Persian Gulf brethren. Instability in and around the region has complicated the investment landscape for the country even further. Although it’s in the interest of the United States to help, it lacks both the political and financial capital to do so.
Jordan needs investment in infrastructure and development projects in order to create jobs and keep its economy growing. While the United States can and has offered limited assistance, it would be wise to highlight and emphasize Jordan’s current situation to our allies in the Gulf and encourage investment in both the public and private sectors — and aid in the form of humanitarian assistance specifically for Syrian refugees. Kuwait stepped up with a pledge of some $300 million recently, and a United Arab Emirates-funded refugee camp in Jordan recently opened. But other countries must follow this lead. American allies in the Gulf are not only well-positioned to make these types of investments with their large sovereign wealth funds, it’s also in their strategic interest.
The security of the Middle East, like any part of the world, is of a co-dependent nature. Without Jordan, Gulf security — and, for that matter, global oil security — could become increasingly unstable. While a pledge to increase U.S. aid is a positive step for the White House to take as Syria continues to unravel, the United States must take one step further by actively encouraging our allies in the Gulf to assume a greater role in regional security by putting forth far greater economic support for Jordan. This role is not limited to only humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees but large-scale investment that will create jobs and keep the Jordanian economy moving forward. It is a logical, necessary and cost effective step for the Obama administration, and the return will benefit all parties involved — including the Gulf states.
The Syrian crisis presents the United States and its allies with many challenges in the region — but alone Washington lacks the prescriptions and options necessary to make a difference. It’s time for America’s partners and allies in the Gulf to play a leading role in the broader region by not only providing humanitarian relief but the substantial investment Jordan and its people require. The Syrian crisis is only getting worse and Jordan needs all the friends it can get right now.