The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s security dilemmas

King Abdullah II spent most of last week in Washington, D.C., where he tried to shore up U.S. support for Jordan by meeting with business leaders (pitching Jordan for foreign investment), civil society organizations (including American Arab, Muslim, and Jewish organizations), congressional leaders, the vice president, and finally, with President Barack Obama at the White ...


King Abdullah II spent most of last week in Washington, D.C., where he tried to shore up U.S. support for Jordan by meeting with business leaders (pitching Jordan for foreign investment), civil society organizations (including American Arab, Muslim, and Jewish organizations), congressional leaders, the vice president, and finally, with President Barack Obama at the White House. Yet upon his return to Jordan, the king was met with a new statement of domestic opposition, signed by almost a thousand opposition figures, railing against a multitude of regime policies, both foreign and domestic. Having just returned from a seemingly successful visit to the United States, this is probably not the welcome that the king was hoping for.

Jordanian officials used to joke that Jordanian foreign policy could best be explained by noting that Jordan existed "between Iraq and a hard place." That old English-language pun may not have been riotously funny in the past, but in the present it no longer even comes close to explaining the extent of external pressures on the kingdom. The economy remains disastrous. The reform process remains incomplete and contested. And the Syrian civil war edges ever closer to Jordan, threatening to drag the kingdom into a conflict that it is desperately trying to avoid.

Syria is Jordan’s most urgent fear. As fighting has raged in and near Daraa (a southern Syrian city near Jordan), Syrian missiles have hit the Jordanian side of the border. In a recent televised interview, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Jordan of arming and training rebels and sending them back to fight the Syrian army, and he further threatened that the "fire" of the Syrian war would reach Jordan too. Given Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, and widespread reports that it has already used them on its own people, these fears are taken very seriously in both Amman and Washington — so seriously that a unit of 200 U.S. soldiers is being sent to bolster Jordan’s efforts to secure its own border and help the kingdom deal with the dangers of chemical weapons. Rumors circulated in Jordanian media that U.S. Patriot missile defense systems would also be deployed. These defensive moves have, however, also increased Jordan’s external security dilemma: how to increase Jordanian defenses without unintentionally provoking Syria? Similarly, they have exacerbated the regime’s internal security dilemma: how to protect its security without raising the ire of domestic political opposition?

The opposition statement revealed a troubling new depth to familiar critiques of the kingdom’s foreign policy. The statement, warning ominously about "plots" and "conspiracies" to undermine Jordan’s sovereignty and identity as a state, was broader in focus and in terms of signatories, including nationalists, tribal leaders, and retired officers, but also including many leftists, trade unionists, and representatives of Hirak popular movements. The authors accused the regime of failing in its internal and external policies, resulting in "despair and frustration" for Jordanian citizens, and "leading to increased levels of poverty and unemployment, deteriorating basic services, education, health and social welfare." This scathing assessment of the kingdom’s Neoliberal economic development policies includes a denunciation of the roles of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and condemned corruption in governance and especially in the process of economic privatization. In many ways, the new statement echoed earlier manifestos, one from tribal leaders and another from retired military officers who had questioned the regime’s path and priorities.

Even as attempts emerge regionally to revive the long moribund Arab-Israeli peace process, this new manifesto pointedly rejects two feared outcomes: confederation between an independent Palestine and Jordan (as part of a future settlement of the Palestinian question), and even more emphatically any hint of Jordan becoming an "alternative homeland" for the Palestinian people. This latter issue has been a major concern of many East Jordanian nationalists for years — some so conservative that they have been referred to as a Jordanian Likud or a Jordanian Tea Party movement. Yet while some on the far right of Israeli politics do indeed speak of a "Jordan option," there is no part of Jordanian society, government, or the monarchy that desires to make Jordan the alleged alternative homeland. Senate President Taher al-Masri, in a recent interview with al-Hayat, reiterated the view of most Jordanian government officials (whether of Palestinian or East Jordanian origin), stating, "The idea of an alternative homeland is completely unfounded in reality. Jordan is Jordan and Palestine is Palestine."

Yet the fear continues to fester among more conservative nationalist forces, and these are increasingly joined by leftist and Pan-Arabist forces, that are now — in turn — linking their "Jordan becomes Palestine" fears to another key issue: Syria. The Syrian civil war has actually been a wedge issue in Jordanian politics, particularly within the opposition, as secular leftists have often backed Assad and the argument that the crisis is a Western-led conspiracy against the leading state in the "resistance" to Israeli and Western imperial ambitions. Yet Jordan’s large Islamist movements, ranging from the long-established Muslim Brotherhood to a smaller but resurgent Salafi movement, have called for the ouster of the Assad regime. Jordanian Islamists have called for support for the rebel movement in Syria and, in private capacities, some Salafi fighters have crossed from Jordan to fight Assad.

The Hashemite regime sees most outcomes in Syria as problematic in varying degrees. A hostile Assad is a danger to Jordan, but so is an unstable post-Assad Syria, especially if it becomes a failed state wracked by sectarian violence or another Islamist-dominated "Arab Spring" state. The same regime that once worried of a "Shia crescent" (encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran) now fears that the new Islamist-led regimes suggest a kind of Muslim Brotherhood revival across the region, with implications for Jordan’s own domestic politics.

As it attempts to deal with the internal and external pressures generated in part by the Syrian civil war, the Jordanian regime has therefore attempted, as usual, simply to weather the storm. But the regime faces intense pressure from Assad to stay out, and from its own allies (especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States) to do more. It is in this context that the regime made what it sees as prudent defensive measures on its border. Yet internally, many right and left wing nationalists (including the signatories to the manifesto) argue that Jordan is being used as part of a larger plan to launch an "aggression" against Syria. Further, they fear that a nefarious alliance of the United States, Israel, and "some Gulf states" is plotting to solve both the Syrian and Palestinian problems at Jordanian expense. More liberal and pro-democracy Jordanians, meanwhile, while not subscribing to conspiracy fears, worry that the regime’s security concerns may derail Jordan’s limited and incomplete political reform process.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the security challenges to Jordan today. But even as the regime and its opponents worry about different hypothetical scenarios, the very real and tangible challenge of the refugee crisis increases by several thousand people every day. Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, has taken to explaining the scope of the problem to American audiences by l
ikening it to having the entire population of Canada come as refugees to the United States. Even as the kingdom has tried to stay out of the Syrian crisis, and has opposed direct foreign intervention, it is now host to more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. This week, Jordan’s representative to the United Nations, Prince Zayd bin Ra’ad, warned the U.N. Security Council of the "crushing weight" of the refugee crisis on the kingdom. The strains on Jordan’s economy, social services, water resources, and political stability are severe. And all this is occurring during an economic recession in a deeply indebted country. Clearly more international help is desperately needed. For some Jordanians, patience is wearing thin. Some members of parliament, for example, called for closing the border. When asked about this proposal in a press conference in Amman — while standing beside visiting U.S. President Barack Obama — King Abdullah had a short and clear response: "No," he said, "It’s not the Jordanian way."

Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy

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