The Jordanian government was one of the early supporters of regime change in Syria. King Abdullah had called on Bashar al Assad to step down last November in what was a clear articulation of where he stood relative to the conflict. Since then, the Jordanian government has been deeply hesitant in articulating its policy of engagement with a turbulent neighbour. This vacillation is particularly dangerous considering the risks involved.
Part of the reason Jordan has vacillated is because of internal instability within the country itself. Turmoil in Syria threatens to impact on tense fault lines that have long been a part of the Kingdom’s political environment.
This is particularly true in the case of identity politics between Jordanians and Palestinians. Palestinian refugees from Syria threaten to upset this fragile balance. It is therefore no surprise that rumours abound concerning Palestinian refugees being turned back from amidst the flood of people crossing over the Jordanian-Syrian border.
Other fault lines such as the one between the Jordanian government and the Islamic Action Front (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan) could also be significantly effected.
Setting aside political risks, Jordan is attempting to deal with the significant socio-economic challenge of absorbing 140,000 refugees crossing over. This particular challenge is made more acute considering the poor state of the Jordanian economy.
The majority of the refugees have been settled in a decentralised manner across the state, often making use of local networks. While this has defused the concentration of refugees in any one spot which would have been particularly susceptible to instability, it has proliferated potential flashpoints across the country. The dire economic situation of many Jordanians means that they might not take too kindly to refugees competing for resources.
The sheer logistical complexity of the number of refugees involved has always called into question the wisdom of constructing a refugee camp in the northern region of the Kingdom.
Perhaps the gravest threat however is the possibility that the Syrian conflict itself would be exported to the Kingdom. Jordan has a dark history of its sovereign land being manipulated for external conflicts, the most infamous of which resulted in Black September in 1970. This might explain part of the regime’s paranoid crackdown on any form of Syrian opposition to Assad’s rule from Jordanian territory.
Taking all this into account, it may be worrying that Jordan has not yet formulated a clear policy towards Syrian events, but it is not surprising. It is even less surprising when we look at the regional (Turkey) and international paralysis elsewhere in dealing with what al Assad has termed a “war”.
In any case, the Kingdom has taken some measures. Militarily, the northern border has been bolstered with security forces apparently aimed at protecting the nation and preventing spill over without arresting the humanitarian flow of refugees.
Politically, Jordanians have been debating what constitutes an optimal foreign policy role. Some support direct intervention. This opinion has gathered intensity with the increased attention to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Such voices see a desperate need to prevent these weapons from falling into the wrong hands. Others are staunchly anti-intervention, seeing such policies as rash and outside Jordan’s jurisdiction.
Whichever side of the debate one is on, it is clear that Jordan cannot afford to remain idle in the face of such an explosive environment. Jordan has often played the role of mediator, as well as host to refugees. It is currently attempting to play the latter in a way which would safeguard its interests. Perhaps it would be wise for it also consider to the former and fall back on its history of mediation. The country has an older (and at times friendlier) relationship with Syria than say Turkey or the Gulf. It has more to lose from an escalation and it has a lot to gain in terms of regional clout. Perhaps that is the option worth pursuing.