The old joke about Jordan’s political geography — that the country sits “between Iraq and a hard place” — seems morbidly, and not at all amusingly, appropriate once again. Violent conflict is intensifying on three borders: Syria is aflame, in the third year of a horrific civil war; Iraq is racked with renewed internal strife; and now Israel is again bombarding Gaza, with Palestinian civilians suffering the bulk of the casualties and Hamas firing mostly useless rockets in response. Speculation has begun about a third intifada.
In the midst of all this turmoil, reports suggest that the United States is looking to expand its training of, and support for, Syrian rebels — presumably with the Hashemite Kingdom as its main base. The Jordanian regime is said to be reluctant to highlight its precarious connection to this operation. The regime has previously been linked to rebel factions deemed moderate in Western capitals and has allowed some representatives of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) to stay in Jordan, even as the kingdom maintains diplomatic ties with the Asad regime in Damascus. Even the row over Jordan’s ouster of the Syrian ambassador did not lead to a formal break.
The US has moved to bolster its own direct support to Jordan, increasing to perhaps 1,600 the number of US troops in Jordan at present, some of whom are manning Patriot anti-missile batteries and servicing F-16 jet fighters stationed near the Syrian border.
Jordan has also increased the numbers of its own military forces on both the Syrian and Iraqi borders, in response not only to the rising levels of conflict in those countries, but also to the competing declarations of salafi jihadist “states.” The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) declared a new “caliphate,” while its rival, Jabhat al-Nusra, pronounced the caliphate null and void, while heralding its own “emirate.” These announcements have resonated with some salafis within Jordan itself, particularly in the restive southern town of Ma‘an, where there have been small demonstrations in support of the caliphate. (As many as 2,000 Jordanian jihadists have already joined the war against the Asad regime in Syria, some with ISIS, some with Jabhat al-Nusra. The Jordanian regime has made very clear — including by opening fire at the border — that these men are not welcome home.) In Ma‘an, even as the demonstrations proceed, more senior salafi leaders condemn the caliphate with fatwas, underscoring the vast divisions within Jordan’s movement of Islamist puritans.
Meanwhile, Jordan has mounted new recruitment drives for both the armed forces and the gendarmie (or darak) divisions of the police. King ‘Abdallah II met last week with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Iraq — and presumably Jordan’s security needs.
More controversially, Jordan has also tightened up the provisions of its anti-terrorism law, if tightened is the word, since the new definitions of proscribed dissent, even that taking place online, are rather elastic. This measure is an echo of year-old restrictions that resulted in the closure of almost 300 websites in a country that previously had the most open approach to the Internet in the Arab world. Officials argue that the strictures are essential. But many democracy activists fear that, once again, political openness and reform are being sacrificed in the name of national security.
Jordan’s political opposition is sometimes deeply divided over the nature of the conflicts next door. The Syrian war, in particular, has seen a dramatic rift open between the Muslim Brothers (who oppose Asad) and leftist and pan-Arab nationalist parties and groups (which support Asad). But the bombings in Gaza are an altogether different matter. Jordanians may be quite divided in their views of Hamas, but they are strikingly unanimous in their support of the Palestinian people.
Jordanians of all backgrounds follow events in Gaza and the West Bank closely and with empathy. Government, regime and opposition all decry the bombing of Gaza as “collective punishment.” While Israel argues that it is striking back at Hamas, and preempting more showers of rockets, most Jordanians emphasize the fundamental structural inequality of the conflict and intense level of civilian suffering, particularly that of children. Their main concern is not about Hamas, but about Gaza — and Jordanians are not as likely to conflate the two as many in the West are. Whether their roots are in historical Palestine or in East Bank tribes, whether they are Muslim or Christian, Arab or Circassian, Jordanians are united in horror and anguish over the latest disaster befalling Gaza.
Despite Jordan’s many other security concerns, both government and opposition continually assert that the core conflict in the region remains Israel and Palestine. The king himself has repeatedly stated that the lack of resolution of Palestinian desire for independence and statehood undermines regional stability. Opponents of the regime often criticize the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty — now in its twentieth year. They argue that Israel takes the treaty for granted, and is emboldened by the agreement to use force against Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees continue to flow into the kingdom, which has already absorbed waves of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees over the years. The social, economic and political strains on Jordan of these refugee flows are severe.
Between Iraq and a hard place indeed.