In an about-turn from its traditionally cautious stance on Syria, Jordan joined the U.S.-led coalition attack on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria last month.
Jordan had played host to the U.S.-led training of Syrian rebels and allowed arms supplies to enter into Syria, but for the most part it played an indirect role in the conflict.
But now the rise of militant extremists and the potentially destabilizing impact of 1.4 million refugees at a time when Jordan is facing growing domestic discontent over unemployment and economic hardship have made it harder for Jordan to withstand the surrounding turmoil.
Moreover, Jordanian fighters have come to play an increasing role in the Syrian conflict: drawn to an extremist al-Qaida idealogy, Jordanians have joined Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS at alarming rates.
As of April, an estimated 2,200 Jordanians were fighting in Syria, according to a Carnegie Endowment report. More alarming to Jordanian officials, approximately 30 fighters return to Jordan from Syria each week, leading to drastic anti-terrorism measures taken by the Jordanian government to prevent the spread of homegrown militants fighting and returning from Syria’s civil war.
Here, Dr. Marwan al-Muasher, former deputy foreign minister of Jordan and the current vice president for studies at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, weighs in on why Jordan decided to join the U.S. led strikes on Syria.
Syria Deeply: With its decision to join the U.S.-led strikes on Syria, Jordan has taken more of a hands-on approach to Syria than before. Why the change and why now?
al-Muasher:Jordan feels that ISIS poses a threat to itself, not just to Syria and Iraq. In the other two cases, it was seen as fighting a foreign, sovereign state, and Jordan did not want be seen as doing that. With ISIS, it is seen as not just a security threat, but more importantly, a cultural threat to Jordan. There are people inside Jordan who support ISIS. Left alone, this culture might grow to pose dangers to the whole region, not just Syria and Iraq.
Syria Deeply: What does Jordan hope to achieve? What seem to be its strategic goals?
al-Muasher:To weaken if not eliminate ISIS all together, a goal Jordan shares with the other coalition members. Jordan is not in a position to provide combat troops, but it can do a lot in terms of providing logistical support, air bases, intelligence information, contact with Sunni tribes – particularly in Iraq, in order to help defeat ISIS.
We’ve already seen a number of air sorties carried out by Jordan and several other members of the coalition, not just the United States but also the UAE, Saudi Arabia and others. We border Syria to the south, and we have a big air base in the north, which is now being used for air sorties into Syria, so there is a lot of coordination with the coalition.
Syria Deeply: What is the risk involved here? Has Jordan made itself more of a target for ISIS and extremist groups?
al-Muasher:Jordan will be a target. It has been a target before. ISIS’s predecessor al-Zarqawi and his group sent suicide bombs that detonated in three Jordanian hotels in 2005. I am not concerned with the security threat. Jordan has a very strong army and strong intelligence service. The threat that ISIS poses is a cultural one, an inside threat, particularly because some – particularly the youth – subscribe to this ideology. Any campaign against ISIS can’t be limited to a military effort; it has to be coupled with addressing the key causes that caused ISIS to emerge. You have to look at the government and socio-economic issues and conditions, and do something about that, in parallel to moving on ISIS militarily.
Syria Deeply: What’s been the overall impact of the Syrian crisis on Jordan, more than three years on?
al-Muasher:It has had a tremendous impact. You have 1.4 million Syrian refugees out of a total population of 7 million Jordanians, so over 20 percent of the population are Syrian refugees. These refugees aren’t going back any time soon. We had a similar experience with Iraq refugees 10 years ago.
It is a humanitarian problem and an economic issue. The Syrian refugees are drawing on the meager resources that Jordan has, such as water. The unemployment rate is already bad, with 14% unemployment, and this situation is only adding to it. Of course the loss of trade with Syria as a result of war presents a considerable strain on Jordan.
Syria Deeply: How has that impacted social cohesion and general stability in Jordan?
al-Muasher:So far, Jordan has coped well, but if you look at the polls in the country, 75% of Jordanians are against receiving any more refugees. There is no question that the majority of Jordanians are against more refugees. This is becoming more of an issue in Jordan. How do you not receive people who are fleeing conflict, people who are being bombarded? But at the same time, how do you reconcile this [the refugee situation] with Jordan’s meager resources? There are cities in the north, Mafraq and Ramtha, that already have more Syrians than Jordanians, so the issue of social cohesion is becoming more important. Syrian refugees are accepting much lower wages than Jordanians, which is causing tension because the unemployment situation is already bad.
Syria Deeply: How is the Jordanian government finding ways to cope?
al-Muasher:It has borrowed more money, but that is becoming more difficult. Public debt is already extremely high at 90% of GDP, and it is getting worse because of the refugee situation. Jordan is seeking more funds from the international community. Some additional funds have been given to host the Syrian refugees, but it is not enough to deal with the issue.