Jordan bearing the brunt

Already home to almost two million Palestinians, Jordan has had to take in almost a million Iraqi refugees as an aftermath of the two Gulf wars, the majority of whom have not returned.

Anwar Rizvi
29 August 2013

So it seems as if there will be direct western military intervention in Syria, following the alleged chemical attack by government troops in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta. A “short & sharp” aerial and seaborne attack, as proclaimed by western leaders on Syrian military facilities, may alter the balance on the battlefield and give the rebels the upper hand. It might even hasten the demise of the Assad regime and finally bring about an end to this long and bloody conflict that has so far cost over 100,000 lives and turned millions of Syrian into refugees, both internally and in neighbouring countries. Or it may not. There are however wider regional implications and no country is feeling more on the edge right now (with perhaps the exception of Lebanon) than Syria’s southern neighbour Jordan.

Spend a day in the dusty little Jordanian border town of Al-Ramtha, the destination of many Syrian day-trippers during the isolationist days of the late Syrian dictator Hafez al Asad, eager to stock up on everything from bananas to baby nappies.  As the process of gradual liberalisation of the Syrian economy took effect under the current regime, the need to cross the border for basic necessities disappeared. The traders of Al-Ramtha adapted accordingly.  Mobile phones & the latest electronic gadgetry replaced diapers & fruit.  Syrian day trippers came in ever greater numbers and the traders prospered like never before.

Early stirrings of the Syrian uprising just across the border in the town of Daraa, were first registered by the people in Al-Ramtha. There are families and tribal connections on both sides of the border and crossings are made on an almost daily basis. News of the Syrian army’s brutal assault on Daraa was greeted with shock and anger in Al-Ramtha.  People came out to demonstrate by the border crossing and the initial flow of refugees was given a very warm welcome.

More than two years on, the mood in Al-Ramtha has turned decidedly darker and gloomier. In a town that relied almost exclusively on cross-border trade, the economy has ground to a virtual halt.  Unemployment, already quite high in the rest of Jordan, has hit this place harder than anywhere else in the country. And the refugees keep coming in ever greater numbers.  While most are destitute,  those who are relatively well off have rented or purchased properties in Al-Ramtha and surrounding areas,  resulting in a sharp increase in property prices that pushes locals out of the rental market.  There is growing resentment and reports of violent clashes between locals and the refugees.  The authorities have reacted by forcing all refugees into the vast Zaatari refugee camp, run by the UNHCR and unofficially recognised as Jordan’s fourth largest city.

While Al-Ramtha has suffered economically, the wider political ramifications of the conflict are being felt keenly across Jordan.  Demonstrations called by the country’s Islamist parties and people sympathetic to the Syrian rebels, have become the norm after every Friday prayers. I witnessed one such demonstration outside a mosque in downtown Amman where the mood of the protesters seemed to be decidedly angry, anti-Assad, and anti-Hezbollah.  The speakers publicly called for Jihad (holy war) and Hezbollah flags with the party’s name changed to “Hezb ul Sheitan” (party of the devil) were prominently displayed.  One protester that I spoke to was unequivocal on where he stood on the issue. “The war in Syria, this is our war. This is a war for all Muslims. We have to help our Syrian brothers in any way we can against the infidel Assad regime”.  When I asked him if the authorities might take a different view, his mood became angrier. “We do not need permission from our government or any government to conduct Jihad. It is an order from Allah”.

These sentiments would not sit well with the Jordanian government.  Jordanians have for decades found themselves caught between various Middle Eastern conflicts. Already home to almost two million Palestinians, Jordan has had to take in almost a million Iraqi refugees as an aftermath of the two Gulf wars, the majority of whom have not returned. The late King Hussain, father of the present King, had turned his famous balancing act into a fine art that even the most accomplished trapeze artist would be proud of. Ruling a country that is arguably in the midst of the world’s most volatile region, he managed to make peace with Israel, while at the same time allowing Hamas to establish their headquarters in Amman, keeping the likes of Saddam Hussain at bay and largely appeasing a restive Palestinian population.  For decades the late King was the “go to” man for the west: when peace negotiations between Israel & the PLO faltered, he was asked to help bring negotiations back on track.

The civil war in Syria has come at a particularly critical juncture for the Jordanians.  The present incumbent, King Abdullah has had to adapt quickly to the profound changes that have been taking place in the region. Faced with growing economic and political discontent, and with the rising political power of Islamist parties, he has instigated reforms to try and keep a lid on the domestic situation. The populace, inspired by the Arab Spring and fed up with rampant corruption and a rapidly deteriorating economy at home, has become far more vocal. Street protests, although seldom violent, are a regular feature.   The Jordanian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies have looked at the success of their comrades in Tunisia and Egypt and feel that they are now in a much stronger position to pressurise the King into further reforms. The Syrian civil war has become something of a focal point and a rallying cry for them.

There is a genuine fear within Jordan that a collapse of the Syrian regime will bring about a spread of extremism. While allowing the US military to conduct joint exercises as well as provide training and logistical support for the rebels, the Kingdom has not allowed the flow of weapons from its Northern border, despite enormous pressure from their Arab neighbours. The King has expressed his concerns about the fate of post-Assad Syria and the implications for the region. He has been equally critical of the now deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, both enthusiastic supporters of the Syrian opposition. Aside from domestic political considerations, there are other practical worries for the country. With an estimated half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan, the Kingdom’s greatest fear is that a total collapse of the Syrian state will push a further two million refugees into Jordan, or roughly 40% of the kingdom’s population.  This would be an untenable situation for a relatively small country with a fragile economy and an infrastructure that is already creaking under the strain.

King Abdullah, like his late father Hussain, finds himself leading a country that is yet again being pulled in different directions by competing regional and international interests. He now has the added problem of having to deal with an internal opposition that has become increasingly vociferous and politically much more powerful than at any time in the desert kingdom’s history. Whatever the outcome of western military intervention in Syria, the King of Jordan and his subjects will be keeping a very nervous eye over their northern borders.  

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