Newsflash: Jordan's ISIS War Began 3 Years Ago
The savage murder of a Jordanian Air Force pilot, which was videotaped and released this week while King Abdullah was visiting Washington, further underscored the increasing security challenges Amman faces both to the north and west of its borders. With mounting budget pressures, as well as a large Syrian refugee community within his borders, the King has a number of friends, a few tacit acquaintances and a growing number of enemies.
In terms of long-standing friends, King Abdullah’s visit to Washington last week, the second in less than a year, highlights the growing synergies between Washington and Amman on regional security and the importance of this strategic relationship to the Kingdom. Washington has given Jordan substantial military and security assistance since 2011 to deal with both the massive flow of Syrian refugees and the militant groups operating in Syria and in Iraq. In addition to being a refuge for a number of Syrian army defectors, Amman has also served as one of main arms and military assistance points for the Free Syrian Army and a smaller staging and training ground for Washington’s largely symbolic support for the “vetted” Syrian armed opposition.
The Gulf states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have been critical in keeping Jordan’s finances out of the red and providing humanitarian assistance to Jordan’s large Syrian refugee community. The late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia went so far as to suggest that Jordan join the GCC. The Israeli leadership also recognizes the strategic importance of the Hashemite monarchy, and, ironically, Jordan is one of the few issues on which both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu find common ground.
In terms of tacit acquaintances, President Assad is arguably less of an enemy than one might expect. For over a year after the protests erupted in Syria, at a time when it was unclear whether Assad would be toppled or not, the King restrained his support for the Anti-Assad forces, despite the anti-regime sentiments of the growing number of Syrian refugees pouring into his country.
As the winds of change started to turn against Assad during the first half of 2013, and with growing international support of the Syrian National Coalition and pressure from Jordan’s foreign-aid donors, Abdullah took more forward steps, albeit reluctantly and not very publicly, to support regional and international efforts to back the Syrian-armed and political opposition.
Many saw this as a policy shift from the Royal Court in Amman, a view that was often supported by King Abdullah's harsh denouncements of the Syrian government—most notably calling for Assad to step down in the fall of 2011. Nonetheless, King Abdullah has always been reluctant to actively oppose the Syrian regime. This should not come as a surprise. After all, given Jordan’s vulnerabilities in absorbing Syria’s displaced population, the collapse of the Syrian state has been more of a concern for King Abdullah than the likeability of its leader. Jordan’s experience as well with refugees from both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the 2003 Iraq War also underscored to him the risks and costs of a large refugee population. Abdullah also did not want to antagonize President Assad too much, because the Syrian president’s security forces operate within Jordan’s borders and could seek to destabilize the Jordanian monarchy.
Consequently, after almost four years of fighting in Syria, Abdullah’s most significant enemy has been the growing number of Islamist groups that form the core of the opposition in Syria. While some commentators have seized on Abdullah’s comments in recent days as a sign that the fight against ISIS is now as much a war for Jordan as it is for the United States, in reality, Jordan has been fighting against ISIS and other Islamists groups in Syria much longer than the U.S. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, given their ability to destabilize King Abdullah’s rule or take power in Syria. Indeed, Abdullah emphasized these very points during his January 2013 Davos speech.
Furthermore, as vocal as the government has been in warning about the economic and social costs of Syria’s refugees, from day one, Amman has been the most concerned with their impact on the Kingdom’s security and stability. As refugees poured into Jordan, Amman fretted about the community’s Islamist-leaning members linking up with Jordan’s own Islamist opposition. Consequently, Jordan’s security services have kept them under constant surveillance and cordoned off from Jordan’s population in fenced UN refugee camps.
Amman has also sought to prevent the large refugee areas from becoming a breeding ground for extremism that could threaten Jordan. The government even disrupted a plot to bring explosives from Syria into Jordan to stage an attack in Amman.
It is also in this context that King Abdullah has allowed Amman to become a main staging ground for the secular opposition. This has included welcoming Syrian army officers who defect into the country, as well as allowing Jordanian territory to be used as an operations point for coordinating armed and financial assistance to the moderate Free Syrian Army. Jordan also has supported and welcomed the consolidation of the moderate Syrian opposition along its northern border with Syria.