Jordan’s approach to the conflict in Syria has been one of cautious neutrality. It was certainly not in its interest to condemn Bashar al-Assad and support opposition forces – risking a backlash later – nor to declare open support to the disgraced Syrian leader and alienate Jordan’s friends in the Gulf and the West. King Abdullah called for peaceful democratic change in Syria as early as November 2011, however Jordan has so far resisted pressure from the region’s powers to take a stronger stance and allow weapons to travel through the country to opposition forces. Its single active role has been that of caretaker of more than 138 thousand refugees that have fled across the southern Syrian border since the crisis began in February 2011, a majority of whom live scattered across Jordanian towns and cities.
Aside from the immense fiscal burden this places on the already struggling economy, Jordan cannot afford to have the Syria conflict spill over the border. The Jordanian General Intelligence Service has been attempting to keep a lid on jihadi activity on the Syria-Jordan border, curbing both foreign jihadists using Jordan as a springboard into Syria and fighters bringing the conflict back into Jordan. Securing the 375km long border and the northern region from “any infiltrations” has been a priority, according to government spokesman Sameeh Maaytah . The necessity for such measures became clear when eleven Jordanians, allegedly linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq, were arrested in October on suspicion of planning several attacks in Amman with weapons and explosives from Syria . A day later attempts by “militants” to cross into Jordan from Syria resulted in skirmished with Jordanian soldiers which left one soldier dead . The state’s security apparatus is also limiting the numbers of North African jihadists crossing into Syria from Jordan, making it difficult for them to access weapons and traverse the border.
Worrisome for Jordan is the prospect of such activities rocking the status quo that exists between the government and the Jordanian Salafist Jihadists. Adhering to an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement that safeguards both sides, the Salafist Jihadists have rarely adopted the practical side of their extremist ideology within Jordan itself. Ideas and fighters have been exported to Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and Iraq , most notably al-Zarqawi, who founded al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and later aligned himself with Osama bin Laden (renaming the organisation al-Qaeda in Iraq). So far the around 5,000-strong movement has claimed to have sent around 250 jihadists to fight in Syria. The Salafist Jihadists have nonetheless grown more outspoken within Jordan itself: since the start of protests in the Kingdom in December 2010, Salafist Jihadists have staged protests in Amman, Zarqa, Irbid and other cities, often calling for the release of relatives and friends imprisoned on terrorism charges. These however went ahead with minimal interference from security forces, and in April 2011 King Abdullah released 4 Salafist Jihadists from prison. Despite the increasing public appearance of the movement and greater criticism of the regime, the maintenance of a stable monarchy is as much in the interest of the Salafist Jihadists as it is of King Abdullah. A recent document allegedly by the Jordanian Salafist Jihadist and spiritual mentor of al-Zarqawi, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, currently imprisoned in Jordan, clearly renounces violence against “the Jordanian regime”, saying that “Jordan is a critical country surrounded by an inflamed region […] it must be emphasised that our strategy in this country does not include random acts of violence against the regime.”
The greater long-term threat to the Jordanian regime is the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Jordanian political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), has gained in prominence since the start of demonstrations in December 2012 . Theirs has become the loudest voice calling for radical political reforms in light of snail-paced political change, hiking fuel prices and economic hardship. An IAF-organised protest around the main al-Hussein Mosque in Amman’s centre in October drew a crowd of 15,000 protesters. Upcoming elections in January, which King Abdullah promises will allow a greater voter contribution to the government and epitomise a decisive step forward, are set to be boycotted by the IAF – a defiant stance that could seriously shake the reform attempts and fuel support for the largest opposition party. The IAF has already become rejuvenated with the election of Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi in Egypt and it is the prospect of an additional Muslim Brotherhood powerbase next door in Damascus that poses the greatest threat to the Jordanian regime. If such a move were to occur, it would mean a more powerful and invigorated opposition in Jordan with greater leverage over the government, and a hostile Syrian government next door.
Behind the scenes the Jordanian regime is already moving to make sure this does not happen, looking for non-Muslim Brotherhood opposition groups in Syria to support quietly. However as precarious as Jordan’s situation may seem, ultimately it is in no one’s interest to see the monarchy toppled and the Hashemite Kingdom descend into chaos. The Muslim Brotherhood is calling for radical reform, but its supporters have stayed well away from chants demanding the overthrow of the King. The Salafist Jihadists, though rising in prominence and increasing jihadi activity across the border, have only benefited from the regime’s leniency towards them and have little to gain from confronting the regime head-on. And for many of the GCC countries, Europe and the US, Jordan is an island of tranquillity in a stormy sea, both a stabilising mechanism for whatever crisis hits the Middle East as well as vital friend to have in the region. The EU, IMF and Saudi Arabia have invested billions into propping up Jordan’s economy, whilst US troops are stationed near the Syrian border and the Kingdom acts as the major hub for western intelligence in the region. Jordan’s stability is crucial for all parties involved, and it is in everyone’s interest to prevent the Syrian crisis from spilling over the border.
By Gioia Forster