WASHINGTON — To the north, civil war has engulfed Syria, ISIS has made inroads into Iraq to the east, and the conflict between Israel and Gaza to the west has turned the world’s attention toward de-escalating hostilities. In the middle of all of this turmoil and chaos, however, lies the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a constitutional monarchy reigned over by King Abdullah II, a country that has so far weathered the violent change sweeping through the region despite a huge influx of Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
But will its stability last?
“You have this sort of paradox in Jordan where the regional instability has somehow stabilized the kingdom. Jordanians, by and large, they look to Syria, they look to Egypt, and now to Iraq, and they say, ‘We don’t want that!”’ explained David Schenker, former country director for the Levant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, at a recent panel discussion held by the Hudson Institute, a non-profit think tank here.
The threat from extremist groups, such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, “in the short-term is limited,” Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, said.
Speaking during the same panel, Itani explained that Jordan does not currently face immediate threat because of chance existential circumstances, rather than specific actions taken by its government.
Itani described the country’s security forces as loyal, cohesive, and adept, which “puts them in stark contrast to those of other neighboring countries of Syria that have struggled with ISIS, including Lebanon [and] Iraq.” He also pointed out that border control in Jordan is effective compared to the 560 mile Syrian-Turkish border, where thousands of people have crossed into Syria to join rebel groups.
Additionally, he said one of the most important things temporarily working in Jordan’s favor is “the geography of the Syrian civil war, mainly that the southern theater is still dominated by the FSA [Free Syrian Army] brigade groups and non-jihadist rebels.” He also noted, however, that the situation is in flux and “nothing can be taken for granted.”
Another reason Jordan currently seems immune to some of the perils experienced by other countries is because it is a high priority for U.S. Middle East policy, Itani said, adding that there is “some kind of meaningful political life” for Islamist groups to air their grievances.
One of the most important aspects for Jordan’s favorable situation, though, Itani pointed out, is that the country does not have a sectarian fault line — more than 95 percent of the population is Sunni.
Itani emphasized that the circumstances currently protecting Jordan from the winds of change sweeping throughout the region may not continue to hold up. There is a “fear” in Jordan, he said, of becoming Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS
“The real security problem, in my view, is the al-Qaida affiliates, the Nusra and Daish, the so-called ‘Islamic State,’” stated Schenker.
Jordan is the leading supplier of foreign fighters in Syria, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence in London. Those fighters tend to gravitate toward al-Nusra for geographic and social reasons, Itani explained, saying that the two groups are “not extremely ideologically dissimilar to ISIS” and that a situation could arise whereby al-Nusra and the ISIS move closer together.
“In fact, if ISIS continues to be the success story of jihadism in the Levant, it may just absorb or swallow Jabhat al-Nusra,” he speculated.
Other dangers confronting Jordan include the fact that ISIS has made “substantial progress” in Anbar province, Iraq, which shares a long border with Jordan, said Itani. Additionally, the FSA is in trouble in Syria, which is the main group checking ISIS expansion in rebel-held territories.
And while Jordan does provide a political outlet for Islamist groups, Itani noted that “there are disenfranchised Jordanians” who are an obvious “potential recruitment ground for jihadist fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Itani believes that policymakers have a “misconception” of ISIS as a loose transnational terrorist network, and that strategy to address the group revolves around containing, rather than destroying, the group. Indeed, Britain recently drafted a proposal to the U.N. Security Council, authored in part by the United States and France, to contain ISIS and other extremist groups by curtailing their funding and other activities but did not advise armed force, according to Foreign Policy.
Itani cautioned that when thinking about ISIS, one must consider what it is and what its main prerogatives are. “First and foremost, it’s a state-building enterprise and because it’s a state-building enterprise focused on capturing population, territory and resources, it follows that they are not going to be immediately obsessing with carrying [out] attacks in Jordan,” he said.
ISIS’ “metric of success,” he continued, is the group’s ability to build a caliphate and “develop the means for confrontation with the West and its allies.”
The strategy of containment, Itani warned, will enable ISIS to “pose a serious challenge to Jordan” as long as its state-building activities go unchecked.
The economy and refugees
“Economically disadvantaged areas in Jordan, like Ma’an, Zarqa [and] Rusaifa are prime recruiting areas for Islamic militants,” stated Schenker.
King Abdullah II seems to agree with this sentiment. While addressing parliament over the weekend, he stated, “If we were able [to] solve the problem of the economy for the future of Jordan, we would overcome the biggest challenge facing us today, because our problem is neither political nor security, but economic.”
According to Schenker, economic disparities in the kingdom were among the main reasons Islamist groups protested in 2012. But because of events in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, people have stopped coming out in sufficient numbers to challenge the state.
This does not mean, however, that they are not protesting at all or that they do not have legitimate grievances against the government, he cautioned. Currently, over 140,000 teachers are on a nationwide strike, demanding a 50 percent raise in their salaries in response to rising housing, utilities and foodstuffs costs, said Schenker.
Further, approximately 1.4 million refugees from Syria, Iraq and other countries are taxing Jordan’s economy. Eighty percent of the nearly 600,000 refugees from Syria live outside the U.N. High Commission for Refugees camps, according to the U.N. While the Jordanian government provides them with welfare, Schenker said they are “working, buying food, renting apartments.”
With an official unemployment rate of 14 percent and an unofficial rate of 30 percent, Schenker worries that the country might see a “backlash” against the refugee population as economic stresses persist.
On Tuesday, King Abdullah II met with governmental committees to create a 10-year economic vision to push back against this potential backlash by addressing issues in the economy with industry, exports, the budget, and finance and banking.
Iran, Iraq and thwarting ISIS
Another person on the Hudson Institute’s panel who had a far more nefarious explanation for the rise of extremist Sunni groups in the region was Salameh Nematt, former Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat newspaper. He concurred that, for the time being, Jordan is safe because of the absence of sectarianism, but also asserted that the ISIS phenomenon and al-Nusra are “the product of the Iranian role in the region.”
He tied Sunni extremist violence to Iran’s support for Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. He explained that ISIS should be understood as a “reaction” to the “action” of Iran that spans over decades.
His sentiment was echoed by Schenker. “The proximate cause [of the rise of groups like the Islamic State] is the viciously sectarian governments in Iraq and Syria backed by Iran,” he said, “and until you can take care of the problem of Iranian regional meddling, then you’re not going to get any of this right. You’re not going to be able to resolve ISIS. This is purely a response to Iran meddling in Sunni countries.”
Itani, however, disagreed with these assessments, saying, “It is the Arab states that have treated their populations this way.”
“We’ve done it to ourselves,” he exclaimed. “In Iraq we’ve done it. In Syria we’ve done it.”
“What Iran is trying to do now is shore up what they’ve built over the past decade and prevent it from collapsing. It’s reactive, not something they’re enthusiastic about, but they’re doing what they see as they have to do,” he said.
Daniel Serwer, a professor of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins University, backed Itani’s explanation. He said Nematt and Schenker have “a kind of extreme position” that is not helpful for understanding the complexity of what is going on.
Speaking with MintPress News, Serwer explained that the break-up of Iraq is a problem for Iran as well. “Iranian concerns about Sunni dominance of Iraq are only exceeded by Iranian concerns about the break-up of Iraq,” he said.
This means that the Iranians likely want to preserve Iraq through supporting a more democratic government that brings Sunnis into positions of power and “devolves power to the regional levels,” he explained.
He said that Iran has a lot to lose in every country surrounding Jordan’s borders. “Eastern Kurdistan is in Iran,” he said, which means that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq’s north could cause problems for the country. He also explained that Iran has a lot to fear from a “Sunni-stan” emerging in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
Indeed, it emerged this week that Iran has been arming Iraqi Kurds for their fight against ISIS.
ISIS eyes Jordan and Lebanon
Yet, of greater importance for Jordan is Serwer’s evaluation of what comes next for ISIS.
“The next targets after Syria and Iraq are likely to be Lebanon and Jordan. They’re the obvious next targets. This is, you know, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. What is the Levant? The Levant is Lebanon and Jordan.”
In order to stop this advance into the Levant, Serwer believes we should look to Iraq. “I think the key question at this point is whether Haider al Abadi [the designate Prime Minister of Iraq] is able to put together a truly inclusive government with real power devolved to the Kurds and the Sunnis,” he said.
This is crucial, he said, because it could be the beginning of really defeating ISIS through convincing ordinary Sunni people and tribes to turn against the group. “Only Sunnis can deal with ISIL,” he asserted. “Kurds can deal with it at the margins, at their border with ISIL. Shia will be able to deal with it further south along their border, but a real defeat of ISIL requires that the Sunni population turn against them.”
On Wednesday, a group of congressmen presented a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner for Congress to discuss and vote on whether or not to ramp up the American military mission in Iraq.