- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Under Secretary of Defense.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, one of America’s most reliable friends in the Middle East, faces what is perhaps the most serious threat of his reign. The Islamic State (as ISIS now calls itself) has already attempted to penetrate his country’s eastern border with Iraq. ISIS had planned to rely on Bedouin sympathizers in the town of Ma’an to let its fighters slip across the border; indeed, supporters of al Qaeda hoisted its flag in a demonstration they held in Ma’an earlier this week.
The ISIS scheme failed for several reasons: Jordan’s internal security forces had long tracked those who sympathized with ISIS, and Jordanian troops entered Ma’an to ensure that there would be no trouble. In addition, according to Gulf sources, Jordanian forces penetrated Iraq to confront ISIS on its own ground (other regional sources report that Jordanian jets hit ISIS target in Iraq). Finally, and importantly, the king met with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny some two weeks ago and reportedly agreed that Jordan would provide financing for Chechnya’s infrastructure in exchange for information regarding Chechens who had links to ISIS and for the deportation to Chechnya of ISIS-linked Chechens caught in Jordan.
For now, therefore, the threat to Jordan from the east seems under control. The king has no reason to breathe any easier, however. His court is seen by many of his subjects, the majority of whom are Palestinians, many with dubious loyalty to the crown, as a hotbed of cronyism and corruption. Islamists continue to be active in Jordan, and specifically harp on the king’s determination to honor the peace with Israel. The threat of Salafist incursions from Syria has not disappeared.
Most critically, Abdullah can be certain that he has not heard the last of the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself the new caliph and surely intends to incorporate Jordan into his caliphate. Jordan’s forces would be hard put simultaneously to confront both an internal threat and incursions across both its northern and eastern borders.
Were it not that the administration’s only firm commitment regarding Iraq is not to have "boots on the ground," as well as the fact that it continues to dawdle in responding to what is increasingly looking like the breakup of that country, it might be expected that Washington would deploy as many troops as necessary to Jordan in order to confront and defeat any threat that ISIS might pose. But the administration’s excessively lengthy review of "options" in Iraq, followed by a drip-drip of small numbers of troops to that country, calls into question just how, and how quickly, Washington might respond to any SOS from Amman. The U.S. currently has about 1500 troops in Jordan, including a Patriot battery and F-16 aircraft. Presumably, these units were deployed in response to the growing threat of a spillover into Jordan from Syria’s civil war. A small number of Special Forces troops in Jordan are training Iraqi forces. And 200 American military serve in Amman as Central Command, Forward-Jordan. At issue, however, is whether the administration would be prepared to dispatch far more troops to the kingdom were King Abdullah to face an internal revolt in conjunction with an ISIS invasion.
The speed with which ISIS captured large chunks of Iraq demonstrates that Washington can ill afford to study "options" to death. If it does so in the face of an imminent threat to the Hashemite monarchy, Israel will likely step in with its own forces to protect its ally. It should be recalled that Israel almost intervened in Jordan 1970, when the Black September group threatened to destabilize the kingdom. There can be little doubt that Jerusalem would do so if it suspects an American response to be either too little or too late, or both. In fact, given Israel’s virtual complete lack of trust in the Obama administration, it may well not wait too long before it intervenes. An Israeli intervention in Jordan, while it might temporarily stabilize that country, would further inflame an already turbulent Middle East.
Now is not the time for ideological purity about keeping America’s land forces in their barracks rather than in the field. The administration should immediately announce that it will not tolerate any threat to Jordan; that it will not issue any restrictions on "boots on the ground"; and that it will deploy as many troops as are necessary to preserve the monarchy, as soon as King Abdullah requests help. Such an announcement will not only reassure the king, but also America’s other allies in the region, as well as signal to its enemies there that Washington has finally come to terms with reality. It is a turnabout that will have come none too soon.