Jordan (not so much) on the Brink?

By Jaymes Hall – Jordan opposed the Assad regime in the beginning of the Syrian civil conflict, but has all but fallen silent as the unrest continued. Partly in response to the stalemate in Syria, but perhaps more importantly due to the growth of extremism inside and around Jordan, Amman has reconsidered some of its domestic policies and its overall approach to regional affairs.

Growing extremist role

With memories of the 2005 Amman hotel bombings still vivid in the Jordanian government’s mind, domestic security against extremism has been a focal point for the state’s security interests. When on October 21, 2012 the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) announced it had foiled an Al Qaeda plan to assassinate Western targets and bomb shopping centers with weapons smuggled from Syria, the operation was dubbed a huge success. But it also underscored the growing presence of terrorist elements in the country. While not mutually exclusive, a large number of the extremists have historically come from the Jordanian Salafist communities. Within the Jordanian community the number of Salafists continues to remain significant, figured as high as 5,000 individuals by both Salafist and security forces.

The province of Zarqa, colloquially known as the Salafist haven of Jordan, is a pivotal region where extremism continues to proliferate. As the hometown of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) late leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the city has a legacy as a hotbed for unrest. In 2011, over 100 Salafist demonstrators were arrested after a demonstration for the release of 300 imprisoned Salafists became bloody, where over 80 policemen were injured by the Salafists wielding swords, clubs and knives. The crackdown was extensive, but did not deter the groups from continuing opposition activities against the state. 

Salafist jihadi elements inside Jordan have called on their followers to travel to Syria in order to wage holy war. Many of these Salafist jihadis have already heeded the call of assisting their Syrian brethren. The accessibility of Syrian rebels to traverse back-and-forth across the Syrian-Jordanian border with relative ease has led to a large number of Jordanian foreign fighters. Approximately, 700 Jordanian citizens are currently engaged in combat across Syria and most are within the ranks of Jabhat al Nusra. The return of these trained and zealous individuals is a major concern comparable to the Mujahedeen of Afghanistan returning to their home countries after the departure of the Soviet Military in 1989. Jordan does not want to see the same scale of violence the Algerian people felt at the mercy of the Mujahedeen based Armed Islamic Group in Algeria during the 1990s.

Saudi Arabia gets busy in Jordan

Saudi Arabia recently shocked the international community when it refused a seat on the UN Security Council. As dramatic as it was, this act is suspected to have been carefully calculated by the Saudi regime to demonstrate their growing engagement in the Syrian conflict. The Kingdom’s involvement in Syria has fueled closer relations with Jordan. However, the relationship has become progressively one-sided toward Saudi Arabia as the conflict rages on.

With a deteriorating security situation in the region, Saudi Arabia’s recent role in Jordan has been providing economic stability. While the economic situation in Jordan was not ideal before the Arab Spring, regional uprisings further exasperated the realities on the ground within the Hashemite Kingdom. Saudi Arabia worried about unrest parallel to its border, began flooding Jordan with aid in an effort to quell some of the burgeoning unrest. In 2011, the Saudi government offered Jordan $1.4 billion to stabilize the economy. This aid has continued into 2013, where the aid is still a staggering $1 billion.

This funding however may have come at the price of Saudi Arabia equipping Syrian militants on Jordanian soil. With arms transfers streaming out of former Yugoslav caches coming in from Croatia to Queen Alia Airport in Jordan, Saudi Arabia has created a precarious situation for the Jordanian regime. Shifting from equipping rebels in the north, Saudi Arabia has been focused heavily on what they call their “Southern Strategy.” With more and more individuals being equipped and trained in tactics to overcome an authoritarian regime, this could create a spillover effect for the Hashemite kingdom, as many of these returning individuals could precipitate further unrest.

Further exasperating the tenuous situation is the lack of regard for the groups being armed by the Saudis. In the past, Saudi Arabia predominately equipped groups merely on the premise that the groups either rivaled those backed by Qatar, or until the recent fissure between Saudi Arabia and the US, the groups designated by US intelligence officials. With the recent gains made by Al Qaeda elements in Syria, Saudi Arabia played a tantamount role in bringing 50 Islamist groups together and forming the “Army of Islam”. Saudi Arabia reportedly forged this alliance under the direction of Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Prince Bandar is a controversial Saudi official who was Ambassador to the United States during the 1980s, who lobbied heavily for US and Saudi armament of Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. With this framework in mind, Prince Bandar is making similar mistakes from decades past, still under the impression that Saudi has the ability to control Islamist elements through a common ideological background and ties with their militant leaders. However, these groups much like the Islamist groups of Afghanistan are far less malleable than perceived. The strengthening of these groups may improve the overall military situation of the Syrian rebels, but may decrease the security of Jordan, as it is these ideologically driven Islamists so near its borders, which alarms the regime most.

Jordan adapts

Realizing the myriad of issues beginning to take place within its borders, Amman has taken several steps to consolidate its hold on the state and institute changes reflecting challenges on the ground.

The Jordanian regime has worked to neutralize radical Salafist recruitment through programs set to bring Muslim Brotherhood elements into the government camp. By including these elements into a camp loosely affiliated with the regime, the Jordanian government may redirect these Islamist elements as a counterbalance to radical and Salafist support in the country. The recent launch of the Zamzam Initiative is one such example the government has supported in an attempt to draw more moderate-reformist elements into the regime’s corner. With the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent failure to garner support for the boycott of the Parliamentary elections coupled with the ouster of the Brotherhood from Egypt, many Islamist reformers have begun to see cooperation as the only viable outlet to achieve their goals.

Jordan has also taken a hardline approach towards radical individuals using Jordan as a gateway into the Syrian conflict. Noting the influx of radical Salafists migrating across its borders, Jordan and has taken steps to crack down on such groups. In September Jordanian military courts convicted a dozen jihadists to five year prison sentences for attempting to cross the border and join Jabhat al-Nusra. By cracking down hard on fighters intent on joining extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Jordan may hope to weaken the future effects these individuals may have on the state when the fighters begin returning home.

Saudi Arabia’s recent spat with the US may well turn out to be a blessing for Amman. King Abdullah II of Jordan recently met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Nahyan of Abu Dhabi on October 21 in an attempt to further solidify relations between the three nations and build a discussion about the situation in Syria. In attendance were both directors of intelligence for Jordan and Saudi Arabia’s, General Faisal Al Shoubaki and Prince Bandar. This would allude that much of the conversation that took place was about the future of Jordan’s role in the arming of Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia may find the United States more reluctant to engage in the coordination of arming Syrian rebels after the recent row between the two nations, therefore Saudi Arabia might find itself in need of Jordan and it’s intelligence services. This will give the Hashemite Kingdom more leverage to pursue its own interests. Jordan will therefore be afforded more opportunity to push for its own agenda and not be subjected to one grounded solely in Saudi ambitions.

While domestic apprehensions drawn out by the Syrian conflict have become a recurring security concern for Jordan, the regime has adopted effective strategies to react to these problems. Pragmatism is a term that has come to define the small Jordanian state. Located in a sea of turbulence, Jordan has found a way to cope with its environment and ride out the waves of unrest. However, the bloodier it gets in Syria and the longer the conflict lasts, the greater the risk on Jordan’s stability. For now, though, Jordan seems to have coped much better with the Syrian spillover than many would have expected.

Jaymes Hall is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, where he is pursuing a Masters in security policy studies. Mr. Hall previously interned at the Washington DC office of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).