Jordan in the Eye of the Syrian Storm

Syrian refugee children play on the swings at the newly built UAE funded Mrigb al-Fuhud refugee camp, 20 kilometres east of the Jordanian city of Zarqa, on 15 April 2013. (Photo: AFP - STR)

By: Nahed Hattar

Published Saturday, April 20, 2013

Media reports about Jordanian involvement in the Syrian crisis have increased over the past few months. However, reports that the US is training Syrian opposition fighters in Jordan have been repeatedly met with denials from government officials in Amman.

Jordanians, however, were surprised at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s comments in an interview on Wednesday, April 17. “We would wish that our Jordanian neighbors realize that...the fire will not stop at our borders – all the world knows Jordan is just as exposed [to the crisis] as Syria.”

On the same day, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel revealed that his country is dispatching 200 army planners to Jordan to assist with Syrian refugees and prepare for any new security developments, particularly those related to Syria’s chemical weapons.

Hagel added that the unit will be taking the place of a previous group of 150 US military specialists who had been sent last year to establish an intelligence and surveillance station to follow events in Syria.

A government spokesperson in Amman said that the officers were being sent in the context of “the security challenges and developments that may stem from the Syrian crisis.”

This was later denied, however, by a statement from the Jordanian armed forces that the American soldiers “have nothing to do with the situation in Syria,” and that they are coming to participate in a routine military exercise involving 19 countries.

Growing Involvement

By the end of 2012, only a few hundred Jordanian Salafis had crossed the border to fight in Syria. The government mostly turned a blind eye, but its policy of cracking down on jihadi Salafi activists remained in place, as evidenced by firefights along the border.

However, by the beginning of 2013, Damascus began to notice a new development, whereby Syrian army defectors and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members were being trained in Jordanian camps and sent across the border with official consent.

This prompted Damascus to dispatch Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal al-Miqdad to Amman in January. Jordanian officials denied any such operations, insisting that their country’s policy of neutrality still stood.

Then, new waves of fighters crossed the border into Syria in February and March, bringing with them large amounts of medium-sized weapons, such as armor-piercing shoulder-fired rockets, which can also be used against planes.

In mid-March, Damascus secretly sent former head of intelligence Ali Mamlouk to Amman to brief his counterparts on border developments. Again, the Jordanian response was complete denial.

A Syrian source who refused to be named said that Jordan has opened several camps for the Syrian opposition that are capable of training up to 5,000 fighters at once. So far, 3,000 have completed their training, of which 1,560 have crossed the border into Daraa.

Diplomatic and military channels remain open between the two countries, which some Syrian officials believe can still be used to deal with the growing problem. Syria’s ambassador in Amman is also quite certain that the Jordanian military, for a variety of reasons, is unlikely to become directly involved in the Syrian conflict.

American Pressure

Nevertheless, Jordan must withstand tremendous pressure coming from Washington in order to avoid becoming implicated in Syrian affairs. US officials like Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, do not hesitate in exploiting Jordan’s fragile economic situation to bend it to its will.

But despite promises of billions of dollars in aid from both the West and Gulf countries, not enough has actually reached Amman to stave off its economic woes. Even those funds intended to help the country cope with the influx of Syrian refugees are slow in coming, and are often bound up with conditions that the Jordanian government cannot meet.

At the end of the day, however, a high-level Jordanian official still believes that it will be difficult for his country to become deeply involved in the Syrian crisis, primarily because the public sentiment opposes such involvement.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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