Jordan Seeks Buffer Zone to Keep Syrian Islamists at Bay

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.

Jordan’s King Fears “Jihadist State” in Syria

King Abdullah II of Jordan answers a question at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 25
King Abdullah II of Jordan answers a question at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 25 (WEF/Sebastian Derungs)

Jordan’s king Abdullah II fears that neighboring Syria will become “a regional base for extremist and terrorist groups” and emerge a “jihadist state” out of its two year civil war which has driven up to half a million refugees into his country.

“Another extremely dangerous scenario is the fragmentation of Syria which would trigger sectarian conflicts across the region for generations to come,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday.

The monarch’s words echoed those of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki who told the same news agency last week that the Syrian conflict could destabilize the Middle East. “The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq,” said Maliki.

However, unlike Abdullah, who insists Syria is “past that point” where President Bashar al-Assad can hold on to power, Maliki argued that the Alawite leader will not be deposed. “The Alawites will fight with other minorities against militants like Sunni extremists,” he predicted.

Syria’s civil war pits majority Sunni Muslims against Assad’s minority Alawite regime which still controls the northwest of the country as well as the capital Damascus. Insurgent groups have pushed loyalist troops out of towns in the north as well as the oil rich eastern part of the country around the city of Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River.

Jordan has been more reluctant than Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all majority Sunni states and allied to the United States as well, to support the opposition against Assad.

But Abdullah was also the first Arab leader to call on Assad to resign and his government has played host to Syrian defectors and refugees.

Jordan has adapted to the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which probably fueled the unrest in Syria at least in part, with political reforms. Twenty-seven out of 150 seats in the lower house of parliament are now filled through elections as are mayoralties and city councils.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement in the country, has boycotted recent elections, however. Abdullah told The Atlantic this month he fears a “Muslim Brotherhood crescent developing in Egypt and Turkey.” In the former, the Islamist group was able to claim a plurality of the seats in parliament as well as the presidency after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in early 2011. The king said he had doubts about Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s commitment to democracy. Under his conservative leadership, Turkey has shed some of its more stringent secular laws and traditions.

In his interview with the Associated Press, Abdullah said he will “will take a step back” as king, “in line with our reform road map for a party based parliamentary government system.” In his vision, Jordan’s monarchy will function as a “safety valve of last resort in case of impasses” among the political parties which are so far still defined more by tribal than ideological affiliations.

Jordan’s Quiet, Growing Role in Syria’s Uprising

King Abdullah II or Jordan participates in the World Economic Forum Special Meeting on Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World at the Dead Sea in Jordan, October 22, 2011
King Abdullah II or Jordan participates in the World Economic Forum Special Meeting on Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World at the Dead Sea in Jordan, October 22, 2011 (World Economic Forum/Nader Daoud)

With the daily death toll in the Syria civil war reaching an average of nearly one hundred, a growing number of Syria’s neighbors are ramping up their support of those fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Most attention has been directed at Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, a group of Sunni dominated countries that have sent the largely Sunni opposition in Syria money and weapons and provides shelter and training.

Turkey’s support has grown to such an extent that Bashar al-Assad himself has blamed Ankara for much of the violence.

But neighboring Jordan has also begun to increase its commitment to the anti-Assad rebellion.

Unlike their Gulf allies, there is no evidence to date that suggests the Jordanians are sending weapons to the Free Syrian Army but their assistance to the opposition is being felt in a number of other ways. The country has opened up its doors to a steady flow of Syrians who are trying to escape the regime’s airstrikes and shelling. Thousands of Syrian civilians have been entering Jordan by the day. Exact figures are unknown. More than 78,000 Syrians are registered with the Jordanian authorities as refugees. Tens of thousands more have probably entered the country unregistered.

In addition, the kingdom has played host to hundreds of military officials who defected from the Syrian army. They are allowed cellphones to reach out to rebel army officials across the region. Afraid that some of these defectors could be found and killed by the Assad regime, Jordanian security forces are watching the men 24 hours per day and have repeatedly denied Syrian government requests for their extradition.

Last November, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to openly call for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. “If Bashar has the interest of his country [at heart],” he said, “he would step down.” Those comments came just as Jordan had joined eighteen other Arab nations in revoking Syria’s membership of the Arab League, a decision that contributed to a series of diplomatic embarrassments for the Assad regime.

So while Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are basking in the limelight, the Kingdom of Jordan is slowly increasing its role, albeit in its own way. The Free Syrian Army may have its logistical headquarters in Turkey but they also have a partner in King Abdullah who has opened the floodgates for Syrian refugees and for some of the very same people who have been fighting Assad for more than a year and a half.

Jordanian King Pessimistic About Peace Process

Jordan’s King Abdullah warned on Sunday that unless progress is made in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Middle East could once again see its oldest conflict erupt in flames. The greatest danger in the region, he told ABC’s This Week, is the status quo which prevents either side from compromising. “Whenever we accept the status quo, we do so until there is another war.”

Israelis and Palestinians stopped negotiating last year when the former would not extend a ten month freeze in settlement construction in the West Bank. Jordan played a role in the collapse of the peace talks too as it refused an Israeli demand for troops to be permanently stationed west of its border with Israel.

Since it was announced that the moderate Fatah party would work together with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization in Western nations, the Israelis have practically given up on the possibility of direct talks. Why, they argue, sit down with people who reject Israel’s very right to exist?

King Abdullah urged the Israelis to “pick one argument and bloody well stick to it,” pointing out that they had criticized Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas because he did not represent all of the Palestinian people. Hamas controlled the Gaza Strip whereas Fatah was in control of part of the West Bank. “Abbas has now made reconciliation with Hamas, does represent the Palestinian people, and the Israeli argument is, well, we can’t deal with him because of Hamas,” said Abdullah who added that Hamas would not have a role in the “security apparatus” of the West Bank.

In an encompassing speech about the Middle East on Thursday, President Barack Obama suggested that Israeli’s 1967 borders should serve as a basis for negotiations about the outlines of a future Palestinian state. Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to Washington DC the next day, rejected the forty-year old border situation as unrealistic. “We can’t go back to those indefensible lines,” he told Obama.

Since the end of the Six Day War, the United States have gradually softened their position on Israeli settlement activity. While the Nixon Administration condemned the building of Jewish homes in occupied territory, President Ronald Reagan said settlement construction was not “constructive.” Bill Clinton allowed for natural growth and George W. Bush in 2004 promised Israel that America would recognize the “realities on the ground” in negotiations about its future borders.

The Obama Administration publicly denounced settlement activity as “illegitimate” but the president recognized that mutually agreed land swaps would be necessary. Previous proposals under which Israel offered to surrender much of the West Bank with the exception of large settlement blocs and East Jerusalem were rejected by the Palestinians however.

Since Israel’s settlement moratorium expired last year, colonists have started building again in territory that is claimed by the Palestinians. “The circumstances that we’ve seen on the ground for the past two years does not fill me with much hope,” said Abdullah.

Israel currently has an outspoken pro-settler party in its government whose leader and Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman prevented Netanyahu from extending the settlement freeze last year. Giving up entire settlements is politically hazardous for the prime minister whose own conservative voters tend to be wary of generous concessions to the Palestinians.

An Expanded Gulf Cooperation Council

In a surprise announcement by Gulf Arab leaders last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council welcomed proposals by Jordan and Morocco to enter into the alliance. The GCC, consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has been wracked by internal protest against monarchial rule since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last January.

The Al Khalifa Sunni ruling family of Bahrain is still experiencing its most extensive period of civil unrest since earlier in the decade when Shiites rose up against the monarchy for an extension of political rights.

Saudi Arabia, the most powerful state in the GCC, continues to dispatch police to its restive Eastern Province where the bulk of its oil reserves are located, in order to crackdown on Shia protests there. UAE authorities have launched arrest raids against human rights defenders and civil society activists, most of whom come from the emirates’ wealthy clientele. Oman under Sultan Qaboos bin Said has been relatively peaceful  compared to demonstrations that have turned violent elsewhere yet residents in the quiet Gulf sultanate are taking to the streets. Oil rich Kuwait is dragging its feet on providing citizenship to thousands of people who, although not Kuwaiti in origin, have moved to the small Gulf state to improve their lives.

The monarchies of the Persian Gulf are thus nervous about the type of political developments occurring around them, and in some cases, within their own borders. Saudis and emirates, who are preferably on the side of regional stability, have already acted in concert with the GCC to quell Bahrain’s protest movement. The offering of a GCC bid to Jordan and Morocco could be another tact to add new members and defend the alliance.

Why Jordan and Morocco? Like the GCC overall, both are pro-Western regimes boasting strong intelligence and military relationships with the United States. Both are indeed monarchies, which would suit them well in a club that is composed exclusively of kings and sultans. Both also happen to be countries with large Sunni populations, which would undoubtedly help Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners unite the region’s Sunni community against encroaching Iranian influence.

But if Jordan and Morocco are welcomed to join, why not Egypt, Iraq or Yemen? Geographically speaking, Iraq and Yemen would be far more preferable than Jordan, which is not even considered a Persian Gulf nation to begin with. Iraq also happens to sit atop the region’s second largest pool of oil, a product which would fill the pockets of the GCC with billions of dollars more in revenue.

While Yemen’s oil production is scheduled to dry out completely in the next decade, Yemenis still possess more oil than the Jordanians, who rely almost completely on foreign aid to sustain their infrastructure and fund their government.

Post-Mubarak Egypt, still in its infant stage of democracy and trying to reassert itself as an independent power, was notably absent as well, straining ties between Egypt and its traditional Gulf backers. Yemen, with all of its domestic problems and a nationwide protest movement of its own, remains the ugly sister on the outside looking in.

The Jordanian and Moroccan bids should therefore be seen as a political strategy rather than an example of economic unification. Surrounded by an ascending Shia government in Iraq and the loss of a strategic ally in Hosni Mubarak, Gulf royals are nervous.

How the United States and Europe fit into this equation is still to be determined. Indeed, it is important to remember that just because Jordan and Morocco are encouraged to apply doesn’t mean that both will find a new home in the GCC. Yet if their applications are accepted, the regional balance of power will be tilted more toward the Sunni states.

Economic Freedom and the Arab Revolts

The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that successfully toppled decade-old dictatorships were largely inspired by a combination of rising food prices and persistent high unemployment among the youth, frustrating an entire educated generation that feared it had no future. The lower middle class, including small businessowners and shopkeepers, were struggling with rampant corruption meanwhile, favoring the members and allies of the ruling party at the expense of entrepreneurship and innovation.

If the lack of opportunity and economic freedom fueled these mass demonstrations, the rest of Arab world should brace for more.

The Tunisian economy is largely dependent on agriculture, including mining, as well as manufacturing and tourism.

Trade agreements with the European Union have helped the north African country create jobs but it continues to discriminate against foreign companies and investors. Foreigners cannot hold major ownership of Tunisian companies without state approval nor own agricultural land.

Bureaucratic procedures are cumbersome and inconsistent moreover while court rulings can be susceptible to political pull. Corruption is widespread and investment decisions are often subject to cronyism.

Some reforms were enacted by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the last decade, including the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the simplification of the tax code. Last year, Tunisia’s economy expanded by 3 percent but unemployment remained high at 14.7 percent, particularly among the young.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime also reformed trade and financial regulation, encouraging entrepreneurship. Egypt boasted a 4.7 percent growth rate last year but inflation exceeded 16 percent while nearly one of out ten Egyptians is out of work.

Egypt has been moving away from socialist central planning for decades but the government continues to subsidize food and fuel. It can be difficult to set up a business in the country because of excessive licensing requirements. People have often to bribe civil servants to file their necessary paperwork while in many sectors of the economy, military ownership of companies and corruption are pervasive.

In Jordan, where people also took to the streets last week and the king sacked his cabinet, economic freedom is high overall compared to the rest of the region but hampered by corruption and the judicial system’s vulnerability to political influence.

Jordan is open to international trade and taxes are low. Labor regulations are flexible but unemployment stands at nearly 17 percent.

Across the region, Bahrain is leading in economic freedom. The tiny Persian Gulf state’s openness to international commerce has produced a 5.9 percent five year compound annual growth rate and its economy isn’t much smaller than Jordan’s in terms of GDP. The government is still working with the private sector to streamline regulations but business is booming.

Bahrain has no income tax and except for oil companies, no corporate tax either. Corruption is significant however and it affects the judicial protection of property rights as well as the management of scarce water resources.

A constitutional monarchy since 2002, Bahrain has endeavored to improve public-sector transparency and reduce its dependence on oil by diversifying the economy. Unemployment has nevertheless remained high at 15 percent.

As in Yemen, the turmoil in Bahrain has more to do with politics than economics, reflective of a Sunni-Shiite divide and the dominance of the royal family in national politics. Nearly all cabinet members are related to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa who is otherwise regarded as a modernist and a reformer.

The opening of politics in recent years has seen Islamist parties enter parliament to push a more traditionalist social agenda. Liberals, in the minority in the lower chamber, have criticized them for curtailing the personal and economic freedoms recently gained. The upper house, wholly appointed by the king, is composed of more moderate, though mostly Sunni members by contrast and includes women.

Demonstrations in Bahrain continued peacefully on Wednesday after two people were killed in clashes with security forces earlier in the week. The king publicly apologized for the deaths on television and vowed that the authorities would investigate the incidents. As some 3,000 gathered to commemorate the death of one protester in the capital of Manama, police where nowhere to be seen.

Bahrain’s Interior Ministry has stated that the country’s “constitution and laws guarantee the freedom of expression through peaceful means,” noting that “citizens can ask for rights and reforms through available legitimate channels.”

The country is a critical American ally in the region as it hosts the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Don’t Forget About Jordan, Yemen

With news focused on the exciting (yet increasingly deadly) political upheaval in the center of Cairo, it’s easy to forget that other states in the Arab world are experiencing protests of their own. The popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are certainly the most visible and ecstatic but dissent often takes a subtle form. In contrast to the clashes that have come to categorize the Egyptian demonstrations, other anti-government protests are starting to gain momentum, many of which have been peaceful and orderly.

While Egypt is often referred to as the most strategically vital state for Washington’s interests in the Middle East, two other pro-American governments are starting to feel the heat from their own populations: Yemen and Jordan.

Protests in the former should be assessed with a small dose of caution, not least because the Yemeni government is already dealing with internal conflicts, population growth and unemployment, along with water and oil shortages. Jordan, on the other hand, is strong, stable and wealthy enough to absorb demonstrations with a relative amount of success.

The last thing that Yemen’s autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, needed was another thorn in the side of his regime. The country is faced with a multitude of problems — a Houthi rebellion near the Saudi border, a secessionist movement in its southern provinces, declining oil reserves and a steady stream of young people entering the poor jobs market. Indeed, this is why thousands of Yemenis in the capital are protesting to begin with. Tired of an unhopeful future and an economy running well behind its oil-rich Persian Gulf neighbors, the Yemeni poor (running in the millions) are demanding that their government get serious about reform.

Yet when asked what reforms they would like to see, many in the demonstrations don’t exactly give reporters and journalists detailed answers. “We need freedom,” most say, but freedom encompasses a broad range of measures that a weak central government may not be able to take without jeopardizing its own position.

Saleh and his band of military loyalists have been in power longer than Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — a success that most autocrats around the world can only dream of accomplishing. Without a strong push from the protesters, it’s hard to fathom that Saleh would respond in a way that the protesters could find suitable.

The good news is that President Saleh understands he needs to take action. Addressing the nation, he announced that he will not run as a candidate during the 2013 presidential election; a concession that is eerily reminiscent of Mubarak’s pledge not to run this September. Saleh has also decided to increase the salaries of the military in an attempt to maintain their loyalty. Will the promise not to stand for election be good enough?

Jordan is another matter. While Jordanians are gathering in the cities to complain against high prices and poor education, few that live in or know Jordan believe that this will amount to anything resembling the Tunisian or Egyptian uprisings.

Contrary to other governments that hold a minimal amount of credibility or respect with their people, the Hashemite kingdom led by King Abdullah II is widely accepted by a large sector of Jordanian society. The monarchy rarely gets criticized harshly; the appointed government and parliament take on that role. This is visibly evident throughout the current discord inside the kingdom, with Jordanians directing their anger at the prime minister even though it is the King who dictates what goes on.

King Abdullah has already responded by dismissing Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai and replacing him with Marouf al-Bakhit, a former prime minister and monarchy loyalist. Similar to Saleh’s preemptive actions in Yemen, Abdullah has increased subsidies and lowered the price of fuel, hoping that these measures will help quell the protests before they manage to attain a mass following. The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, refused to endorse Bakhit’s appointment though, arguing that the entire system of royal appointments needs to be revised.

That demand, however revolutionary, will most likely be cast aside by the monarchy as too radical a proposal. The king has the authority to appoint the prime minister, a tradition that will be difficult to change after sixty years of entrenched Hashemite rule  But it is yet another indication of opposition forces and ordinary citizens in the Middle East starting to challenge the way things are run.

Washington need not worry about Jordan — the country is the most secure in the region and the political order is largely ingrained within Jordanian society. Yemen too, despite its instability, is not a major concern at this time. The protests have been peaceful and violence is confined to hotbeds of the anti-Saleh south.

Much depends on how Egypt evolves. If the demands of the protesters are marginalized by the regime, those participating in the Jordanian and Yemeni demonstrations may pack up their things and go home. But if Mubarak leaves or gives up authority, then both of these countries could be forced to grant more concessions in the face of an emboldened protest movement.