Why you should care
Americans have been pretty clear they want no part of the Syria crisis. But if one of the U.S.’s closest allies in the region starts to fall apart, the White House may have to rethink its policy.
Clouds of black smoke billowed from the burned-out gray pickup truck, stopped in its tracks in a sparse stretch of Syrian desert. The trucks’ occupants — purported Islamic jihadists — had made the mistake of trying to cross the border into Jordan this spring when Jordanian warplanes attacked.
The April 16 incident drew shudders in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Since the war in Syria broke out three years ago, it’s been walking a delicate tightrope — trying to balance the demands of its Western allies and financiers; ruthless, warring neighbors next door; and its own burdened population.
It also rang alarms in Washington, D.C., where worries are mounting about possible instability in one its last solid allies in the Arab world, especially following the emerging chaos in neighboring Iraq.
“We have very few very good friends in the region,” says David Schenker, an expert on Middle East politics and security, who just returned from a research trip to the kingdom, which has been ruled by a monarchy since its independence in 1946. “Jordan has been an excellent friend to the United States,” helping us, among other things, fight our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve also maintained a 20-year-old peace deal with Israel, on their western border. “They do really much of what we ask of them,” says Schenker, who is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in Washington, D.C.
The United States has budgeted $1 billion in economic, military and counterterrorism aid to Jordan for 2014.
Total U.S. aid to Jordan since the 1950s adds up to $13.8 billion.
Jordan’s total external debt as of COB 2012 was $8.3 billion.
Sources: Congressional Research Service and CIA World Factbook
Jordan is critical to America’s security in the Middle East, not least because it’s been an oasis of relative calm amid regional turmoil. That’s no longer a given.
There are more than 600,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, and some estimate the real number of refugees could be closer to 1 million. With a population of just 6.5 million (not including the refugees), it’s the equivalent of the United States taking in more than 30 million refugees in a three-year span.
Jordan is resource-poor, unlike its Arab neighbors to the south and east. Short of water and energy, the economy is depressed and the government deeply in debt.
Jordanians make up one of the largest crops of extremist foreign fighters battling to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, experts on jihadi movements estimate. Their eventual return to Jordan is worrisome.
The Assad regime can make life hard for Jordan if the government in Amman is seen actively working against them. “Syria has a long history of targeting Jordan with terrorism — a long history,” says Schenker.
“The worst nightmare for Jordan is that the crisis in Syria will go on for a number of years,” says Osama Al Sharif, a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman, and that “Syrian refugees will remain in Jordan and be a burden on the Jordanian economy.” With no political or military solution on the horizon in Syria, that scenario now appears likely.
Jordan is used to taking in refugees and is generally hospitable: More than half of its population is Palestinian in origin, the descendants of refugees who fled the creation of Israel or subsequent wars. But tensions between the populations could easily spike in the coming year.
Humanitarian donors are preparing to reduce short-term emergency cash assistance for refugees. That’s bound to push more Syrian refugees to work illegally in Jordan and compete for jobs with Jordanians. Eighty percent of refugees have settled in cities or towns, rather than in refugee camps.
We have few very good friends in the region.
Already facing high unemployment and high prices, as refugees’ spending drives up the price of rents, food and other commodities, Jordanians could easily end up blaming the government. Though Jordan managed to duck the sort of protests that roiled its neighbors during the Arab Spring, it is an uneasy peace.
King Abdullah II, who succeeded his father in 1999, has taken some tentative stabs at democratic reform, though not enough for many. Now he’s promised to overhaul the party and election laws in 2016. The latter, says Al Sharif, has polarized Jordanians for years, and activists will be watching closely to see what steps Abdullah takes a year and a half from now. Democratic reforms, of course, carry their own unpredictable dangers.
“The coming two years are going to be really important” for Abdullah on the political front, predicts Al Sharif.
Even so, internal threats may be nothing compared with the chaos across the 200-mile-long border to Jordan’s north.
For the first few years of the Syrian war, more moderate rebel forces controlled the southern stretch of Syria, but extremist rebels have gained ground in recent months, upping the flow of jihadi forces back and forth from Jordan. Hence the military’s April 16 airstrike — “a message to intruders,” says Al Sharif.
The government side in the Syrian war isn’t much better, as far as Jordan is concerned.
Amman has taken pains to maintain diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, even as it has worked with the United States and Gulf countries that are funding rebel groups. They deny reports this spring that the CIA and Saudi Arabian intelligence are operating a command center to aid the rebels inside the country, just as they denied that U.S. and British special forces were stationed in the country during the early days of the Iraq War.
The result back then was a series of terrorist attacks in Jordan, launched from Syria and Iraq.
Should the Obama administration and other allies boost military assistance to moderate rebels — as former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford urged last week — that could entail more American military forces and training operations in Jordan. It could also make the kingdom more of a target.
“If we start to see terrorist attacks in the kingdom again, that’s going to be the sign,” says Schenker. The sign that Amman and Washington, D.C., should be very worried.