Free Syrian Army fighters south of Syria near the Jordan border. Demotix/Majid Almustafa. All rights reserved.
Bordered by Syria to the north and Iraq to the East, lies the city of Mafraq in Jordan, 80 kilometres from the capital of Amman. The buildings and houses that make up the city are dilapidated and dusty, its inhabitants difficult to spot. Every so often, one can detect an old UNHCR sticker buried under some rubble, or freshly plastered on shop walls. Because of the heavy shelling in next-door Syria, rockets and missiles are commonplace here.
George, a farmer who supervises a large organic farm in Mafraq, originally hails from Damascus. He completed a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Aleppo before moving to Jordan. His staff is entirely Syrian, and mostly women. He encourages me to stick my arm through the chicken wire circling the border of his farm. “Now your body is in Jordan, and your hand is in Syria”, he laughs. He points to a building on top of a hill within the shared zone between the two countries. “That belongs to Jordanian security,” he clarifies, “Syrians attempt to cross this border all the time, and they are taken to that building. Once the number reaches 300 or 400 Syrians, they are transported to the Zaatari camp”. But the Jordanians are very welcoming, he stresses.
The Jordanian security forces may not be very welcoming for much longer. The main threat to manning the 370 kilometre Jordanian-Syrian border lies in identifying suspected jihadist sympathisers and terrorists. Earlier this month, Jordan’s State Security Court sentenced ten Jordanian members of the Salafist movement for attempting to cross into Syria. Currently, 2,200 Jordanians are fighting under the banner of Al Nusra and its rival, former Al Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This number is growing at a rate of 50 new Jordanian fighters per week.
In the past, Jordan’s Minister of Interior Hussein Majali has stated that “terrorism is the most dangerous threat to Arab countries, as the current regional unrest provides a 'fertile' environment for spreading extremism”. In early May, the Jordanian Armed Forces engaged with an unidentified group of individuals trying to infiltrate the country, injuring two of them. A Jordanian security source said the targets, Syrian rebels with machine guns hiding in civilian vehicles, were seeking refuge from fighting government forces in southern Syria.
Due to these threats, Jordan’s lower house of parliament recently passed amendments to its 2006 anti-terror bill, providing the state the power to detain and try citizens suspected of affiliation with terrorist groups. This law aims to target suspected members of Syrian militias likely to settle in Jordan. It is hoped that the new bill will aid the work of the Jordanian military and intelligence agencies.
The amendments to the bill have been controversial, however, because of the addition of Article 3, which, in theory, criminalises “intent to commit acts damaging to the Kingdom’s relations with foreign countries”. In practice, such a modification allows the state to penalise those who criticise foreign countries and their rulers, with the Syrian ambassador to Jordan himself, Bahjat Suleiman, having been expelled from Jordan on Monday. Despite repeated warnings by the government to avoid using social media to make “provocative statements”, Suleiman continued to “use Jordan to directly insult brotherly and neighbouring Arab countries and insult their leaderships”, stated the official spokesperson for the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, Sabah al-Rafie. In response, Syria has expelled its Jordanian ambassador in an unexpected ‘tit-for-tat’ move. As the spillover effect on Jordan from Syria escalates, this has important implications for the diplomatic relationship between the two nations.
The new stipulation, when put in practice, will also allow the government to detain and imprison citizens that support groups in Jordan like the Muslim Brotherhood, which are legal in the Hashemite Kingdom but outlawed in neighbouring countries. Jordan's new legislation comes after Saudi Arabia listed the Muslim Brotherhood and both Syrian jihadist groups as "terrorist" organizations, and ordered citizens fighting abroad to return within 15 days or face imprisonment.
In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood has criticised new amendments to the country’s anti-terror law, arguing that these changes are a sign that the Kingdom is devolving into a ‘police state’. Nonetheless, Jordanian officials have emphasised that the return of suspected jihadist fighters from Syria to Jordan is seen as a direct national security threat to the Hashemite Kingdom. 100 suspected militias have been referred to the State Security Court, which, since December 2013, has jailed 40.
In the long run, Jordanian officials hope that these new laws will prevent young people from falling victim to the extremism that may cross over from borders shared with Syria. The appeal of the Salafist movement lies, in part, with the erosion of power of Jordan’s strongest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist movements are theoretically based on the premise of religion, and can transcend borders in a time of war to unify people on the grounds of religious identity.
This unification may be short-lived, however. Though Al Nusra’s largest recruitment takes place in Jordan, leaders of the hardline Jihadi Salafist movement report a growing number of Jordanian jihadists returning home to Jordan because of infighting among the Islamist militias. Approximately 30 fighters return to Jordan from Syria each week. Whether they then remain in Jordan, or travel back to Syria, is uncertain.
For Jordanian forces, the careful monitoring of shared borders remains a necessary externality resulting from the Syrian civil war. In the months to follow, the strict security regulation that takes place beyond the boundaries of George’s farm will continue.