*English Asian Programme Azja Bezpieczeństwo Bezpieczeństwo międzynarodowe Bliski Wschód Gospodarka Społeczeństwo

Security in danger? Syrian war and its repercussions for Jordan

Possible buffer zones on Jordanian-Syrian border

According to a recent opinion poll conducted among Jordanians in June 2013 by Center for Strategic Studies (University of Jordan), vast majority of the population believes that war in Syria jeopardizes security and stability of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (66% – “severely”, 22% – “moderately”). Even a very brief analysis of the situation clearly indicates that such a claim is justified. The war in Syria constitutes a major threat for Jordanian security and integrity, probably the most challenging since Black September in 1970 and the most complex one with its military, political, social, economic and ecological consequences.

Public discontent on rise

That same opinion poll shows that over half (52%) of Jordanians perceive government’s position towards Syrian crisis as neutral, nevertheless 27% of respondents recognize that Jordanian authorities lean towards the Syrian opposition. Furthermore, support for Syrian rebels is gradually decreasing among Jordanians themselves (46% in June 2013 compared to 58% in October 2012) whereas the group feeling indifference towards any of the conflicted sides is growing (39% in June 2013). It does not change the fact that absolute majority of the nation would prefer the Syrian problem to be resolved in a political manner (70%) rather than through foreign military intervention (23%).

Refugee Camp in Zaatari

Extremely worrying, especially when sided with the humanitarian crisis still unfolding in Syria, is the shifting attitude of the Jordanian society towards Syrian refugees. 73% of the Jordanians are nowadays opposing the open borders policy and further influx of refugee population into Jordan, and such position is on rise. Simultaneously, 87% of respondents believe that refugees should reside only within borders of the established refugee camps as otherwise – according to 90% of the Jordanians – it may threaten public security to a large or medium extent. Full report from the poll is available here (in Arabic).

Since the very beginning of the civil war in Syria Jordanian authorities remain cautious in framing its response to challenges coming from its northern neighbourhood. Above all, Jordan is afraid of a spillover of the conflict, possible retaliatory actions on behalf of the Assad’s regime and further destabilisation of the region which directly hits its relatively weak economy. It constantly calls for a political solution of the crisis, maintains good relations with both Friends of Syria and supporters of Assad (Iran, Russia) and tries to manoeuvre between Syrian government and opposition. Nonetheless, Jordan overtly criticizes Syrian authorities for the bloody reaction to initially peaceful demonstrations, and was in fact the first Arab state to call Bashar al-Assad to step down (in November 2011).

Comprehensive security in danger?

Complexity of threats to Jordanian security inflicted by the Syrian crisis is shown in the table below:

Military dimension Political dimension
  • The risk of a spillover of the Syrian war is real, especially due to involvement of certain non-state actors (eg. Hezbollah, Jabhat al-Nusra) and direct threats towards Jordan received from Bashar al-Assad.
  • Border clashes between Jordanian Armed Forces and Syrian army/rebel groups frequently take place with a few casualties on Jordanian side up to date. Similarly, riots took place several times in Zaatari refugee camp with dozens of security men injured.
  • A direct attack on Jordanian territory with use of conventional and/or chemical weapon is perceived as an immense threat since majority of the country’s population and infrastructure is located within the 200 km radius from Damascus.
  • Possibility that Syria turns into a failed state after Assad loses ground is considered as one of the key concerns for Jordanian security. It may lead to a situation in which Syria becomes an operational base for terrorist groups which might aim to destabilize Jordan or to overthrow the monarchy. It also increases risk of weapon and drug smuggling, and human trafficking across Jordanian border.
  • Return of Jordanian jihadists who are currently fighting along radical groups in Syria may lead to a rise of extremism and endanger the monarchy’s very existence since it is perceived as an ally of Israel and United States.
  • The conflict will soon approach its 30th month without a clear sign which of the fighting side could possibly win. It forces Jordan to balance and manoeuvre between the two sides.
  • If Jordan explicitly goes against Assad, it may provoke retaliatory measures and, since the Assads have historically proved to possess a considerable influence over Jordanian domestic political scene, it may be risky for the monarchy. In J. Barnes-Dacey words, “if Assad remains in power Jordan will have nowhere to run”.
  • If Jordan does not establish any links with the opposition forces now, in the midst of the civil war, it may have serious problems once they secure victory in the conflict. This is why Jordan got involved in Friends of Syria, a group aiming at institutionalisation of support towards Syrian opposition.
  • However, in a broad political interest of Jordan is victory of secular rather than religious forces in Syria. Future government in Syria similar to current composition of the opposition with a dominant role of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups may strengthen Islamist movement in Jordan, traditionally the main opponent of the monarchy.
  • Once/if Assad’s regime falls down, the transition period in Syria should proceed swiftly and with political consensus. The longer the instability in Syria prevails, the longer is the uncertainty for Jordanian regime.
Economic dimension Social dimension
  • The bilateral trade between Syria and Jordan has drastically declined in effect of the war. Economic repercussions are notably visible in northern parts of the country, e.g. in Ramtha, where trade with Syria was a key source of income for local inhabitants.
  • Destabilisation of Syria closed transit routes is crucial for Jordanian trade with Turkey, Caucasus and Europe. Exporting through port in Aqaba and Red Sea costs Jordanian economy more than hitherto route via Latakia and Mediterranean.
  • Jordanian tourism sector is experiencing a significant decline (particularly in number of visitors) in comparison with previous years, a cause of which is a general security deterioration in the Middle East and Syrian war in particular, due to its geographical proximity and hitherto tourist trends (combined trips to Syria and Jordan).
  • Syrian refugees inflow overloads Jordanian state finances and infrastructure, causing increase in prices on the real estate market and floods Jordanian market with cheap labour that takes jobs away from not only Jordanian nationals but also e.g. Egyptians.
  • Exodus of Syrian refugees to Jordan started already in 2011 but its pace has radically increased only at the end of 2012/beginning of 2013. According to UNHCR, currently there are more than 500 000 Syrians registered or awaiting registration as refugees. The government provides a number of more than 600 000 Syrian refugees residing in Jordan. Daily update on statistics is available here.
  • At the moment Syrian refugees equal to around 9% of the population of Jordan. When juxtaposed with a large population of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees living in this country (about which I wrote elsewhere), it clearly explains why the Jordanians are afraid about their own identity. Open border policy ran by Jordanian government receives an increasing criticism from the public.
  • There are reports as old as July 2012 of Palestinian refugees from Syria not being let in and forcibly returned at the Jordanian border or deported from Jordan. Such position is against non-refoulement principle but stems from a very sensitive issue of Transjordanian-Palestinian relations within Jordan which still preoccupies Jordanian authorities.
Ecological dimension
  • The increase in number of refugees is directly related to the increased pressure on a very scarce food, water and energy resources in Jordan. Currently Jordan imports 87% of its food, almost all of its energy needs and is one of the most water-scarce country in the world.

Any solutions?

eager_lion_2013War in Syria is probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges Jordan has to face in more than 40 years. Intensification of the military activity on ground, deteriorating humanitarian situation of the civilians and their massive influx into Jordan, a direct military threat and several dangers related to uncertain future of Syria and overload of Jordanian socio-economic system – it all causes a major concern for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is also why a quick end to the civil war in Syria falls into category of Jordanian ‘to be or not be’. Meanwhile Jordan is forced to continue its balanced and cautious policy, maintain good working relations with everybody and look for security guarantees in the West, which were recently delivered in a form of international military manoeuvres Eager Lion 2013 (with Polish participation) as well as American F-16 squadron and Patriot batteries deployed along Jordanian border with Syria.

Artur MalantowiczCII Middle East Expert & Director of CII Asian Programme  works at the University of Warsaw (UW) where he is also a PhD student at the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science. Graduated from the Institute of International Relations UW (2011) and the Faculty of Geography and Regional Studies UW (2011) and in addition studied at the University of Kent in Canterbury (United Kingdom, 2008-09) and the University of Jordan (Jordan, 2012-13). Trainee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland (2011) and the EU Delegation in Amman (2013). Research interests: International relations of the Middle East, regional security aspects in the Middle East (e.g. Arab-Israeli conflict, peace process, the Palestinian refugees), foreign policy of the Arab states, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (history, political system, foreign policy and the democratization process), superpowers’ policy towards the Middle East.

Read also: