Analysis |

The Syria Crisis Is Keeping Jordan’s King Abdullah on His Toes

Jordan is grappling with a strategic dilemma: If Assad falls, the new Syrian regime might jeopardize Jordan’s stability, but if he remains in power, Jordan might conceivably find itself stuck with half-a-million Syrian refugees.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Forty-five young Syrian war refugees will be given training in the clearing of mines, unexploded bombs and mortar shells and other explosive materials, in terms of an initiative agreed last week between the Jordanian authority in charge of mine-clearing and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The first batch to be trained will serve as instructors for another 20,000 volunteers from among the Syrian refugees, who will engage in this dangerous activity in the towns and villages that they fled due to the civil war, if and when they finally return to their homes in Syria.

The initiative is welcome, though somewhat premature. No one in Jordan or Syria can predict when the Syrian refugees will return to their homes and utilize the training. In the meantime, Jordan’s citizens are still very much concerned over the threat of an American military attack against Syria, despite the recent agreement between Syria and Russia for the monitoring and destruction of Syrian’s chemical weapons arsenal. According to reports in the Jordanian media, many Jordanians living in the northern part of the country close to the border with Syria have fled to cities in eastern and southern Jordan, fearing that Syria might retaliate by shelling Jordanian territory or even by using chemical arms in border areas. One irate Jordanian complained to a journalist that, unlike the Israeli government, the authorities in Jordan were not distributing gas masks to the civilian population.

Despite the declarations by Jordan’s King Abdullah and members of his cabinet that Jordan will not serve as a launch pad for military operations against Syria, the American military presence in the Hashemite kingdom and the deployment of Patriot missiles in the country are leading many Jordanians to seriously wonder whether these declarations should be taken seriously. For several months, American military personnel have been training Free Syrian Army fighters. A few weeks ago, a meeting was held in Amman of the chiefs of staff of the countries neighboring Jordan, while military convoys funded by Saudi Arabia regularly cross the Saudi-Jordanian border on their way to Syria and shipments arrive directly in Jordan from Croatia in Royal Jordanian Air Force aircraft. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the Jordanian and Saudi intelligence services are training rebel Syrian forces whose role is to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. If a military operation is launched against Syria, Jordan might become one of the staging grounds for such an operation.

King Abdullah was the first Arab ruler to call on Assad to resign, although he has since tried to qualify that declaration. However, despite the close collaboration between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which is pressing for a military operation, and despite Abdullah’s willingness to cooperate with the Washington administration, it is apparent that he greatly fears the prospect of a takeover by Islamist forces in Syria following Assad’s downfall. His fears are remarkably similar to those of Israel and Turkey, although Jordan has a more limited military and political capability for responding to such a dangerous development. Within Jordan, the king must contend with Islamist groups, the largest of which is the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, whose members might decide to emulate the activities of their counterparts in Egypt. Generally speaking, there are cooperative relations between the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and the Jordanian regime and the movement is not outlawed in Jordan as it was once outlawed in Egypt. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, King Abdullah – under pressure from the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and with the mediation of Qatar’s crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani – agreed to improve his relations with Hamas and even consented to meet with Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas’ political bureau. The meeting, it should be emphasized, was not in the line of a courtesy call.

At the same time, another threat is growing in the Hashemite kingdom and its potential cannot as yet be fully estimated. More than half a million Syrian refugees have fled to the kingdom since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Some 170,000 live in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, near the Syrian border, and the rest have found refuge in Jordan’s towns and villages. No one can say with any degree of certainty how many of them support Islamist movements and how many of them are members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The population of Syrian refugees, which today constitutes approximately nine percent of Jordan’s total population, might possibly increase and reach 20 percent if the war continues. If Islamist forces take over large areas of Syria or even become part of the regime there, many of the Syrian refugees in Jordan might serve as their branch in the Hashemite kingdom, for the furthering of ideological aspirations, and might combine forces with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood in order to topple the Hashemite regime. Publicly, no one talks about this danger; however, according to sources in Jordan, Jordanian intelligence is monitoring the mood and the religious activities in the Syrian refugee camps in order to pinpoint future points of resistance.

Jordan must thus grapple with a strategic dilemma in which both options are bad: If Assad falls, the Hashemite kingdom might find itself face-to-face with a new Syrian regime that might jeopardize its stability; if Assad remains in power, Jordan might conceivably find itself stuck with half-a-million Syrian refugees fearful to return to their homes. That is the reason for the ambiguous public discourse in Jordan, which is publicly opposed to a military operation against Assad but which, at the same time, is placing an infrastructure of assistance at the disposal of Saudi Arabia, America and the Syrian rebels.

In addition to its political quandary regarding the present situation in Syria, the civil war there has placed an immense financial burden on Jordan, which requires tens of millions of dollars monthly to supply the needs of the refugees. The assistance Jordan receives from the United Nations, other Arab states and Western countries does not keep pace with expenditure. Here lies another political threat facing King Abdullah: Many of Jordan’s citizens are wondering why they must pay in order to provide for the needs of the Syrian refugees, while they themselves are without jobs.

A Syrian refugee woman walking with her children at Zaatari Refugee Camp in Mafraq, Jordan.Credit: AP

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