Jordan Seeks Buffer Zone to Keep Syrian Islamists at Bay

Jordan would be prepared to send troops into Syria to prevent radical Islamists from menacing its border.

American and Jordanian Cobra attack helicopters fly over the desert during a military exercise, May 18, 2012
American and Jordanian Cobra attack helicopters fly over the desert during a military exercise, May 18, 2012 (USMC)

Jordan is preparing to send troops into southern Syria to carve out a buffer zone against Islamists in the area, the Financial Times reports on the day that Turkish media said Ankara was considering deploying troops in the north of the wartorn country.

Whether the two initiatives were coordinated was unclear. But if executed, they are bound to have a significant impact on a civil war that has raged for more than four years.

The uprising against Syrian president Bashar Assad has triggered a massive humanitarian crisis. Jordan and Turkey — which both host hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees — have repeatedly urged their Western allies to help erect safe zones in the country to get food and medicine to civilians.

But European countries and the United States have shied away from direct military intervention, exhausted by more than a decade of war in the Middle East and wary of inadvertently aiding an increasingly Islamist opposition movement.

Now Jordan’s hand is forced by the shifting military situation inside Syria, according to the Financial Times, and concerns that the Islamic State militant group could grab territory on its border.

Jordan — widely considered to have among the most professional armed forces in the region — has been involved in the Western training of non-Islamist Syrian rebels and provides support to NATO airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq as well as Syria.

The air campaign has failed to set back the militants. In May, they conquered the Iraqi city of Ramadi, capital of the majority Sunni Anbar Province. The Iraqi army has had little success against Islamic State fighters while the Syrian regime seems bent on defeating its least fanatical opponents.

Assad’s forces are under pressure in the city of Deraa, less than ten kilometers from the Jordanian border, and expected to withdraw in the coming days. Jordanian or Jordanian-trained troops would then move in to deny the Islamic State a foothold on a border they are determined to erase.

One of the group’s objectives is to create an Islamic caliphate that spans the entire Sunni Muslim world.

Turkey is mulling military action in the north where, according to various local media, it plans to deploy some 18,000 soldiers thirty kilometers deep into Syria. However, the Turkish operation would be less about pushing back Islamic State militants than preventing a Syrian Kurdish state forming on its southern frontier that could worsen Turkey’s internal Kurdish security problems.

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