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Long seen as region's neutral keystone, Jordan wades into Syria

Jordan has long kept the Syrian war at an arm's length, but waded into the conflict this week with air strikes. Why?
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during the UN General Assembly in New York this week (AFP)
Diplomatic pressure and ongoing security challenges are pushing Jordan to wade deeper into regional conflicts and the US-led coalition forming around them.
 
Long the quasi-neutral keystone of the Middle East, Jordan has in the past week offered to send its special forces into Syria to fight Islamic State militants and taken part in air strikes against the same group.
 
While Jordan is the US’s closest Arab ally in the region and host to a battery of American military staff and hardware, it has long tried to hold the Syrian war at arm’s length. 
 
For more than three years, the country has maintained diplomatic relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even as it negotiates with rebels along the border to screen and admit refugees. The Hashemite Kingdom now houses more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees, most if not all of them vehemently anti-Assad Sunni Muslims.
 
Jordan’s Minister of Information Mohammad al-Momani said the pressure of such an influx, as well as the growing conflict beyond the Kingdom’s borders, leaves Jordan in a difficult position. The country’s natural resources, security and economic infrastructures are stretched – as is the patience of many Jordanians.
 
“We didn’t ask for this war but we’re stuck with it,” said al-Momani in a recent interview. “We are bearing the consequences of this conflict: you can’t just change neighbours.”
 
Jordan has been coping with the regional chaos in part by keeping it out, beefing up border security and intelligence monitoring inside and – allegedly – outside the country. 
 
“Jordan has one of the best protected borders in the world, protected military, security-wise and technically,” al-Momani told Middle East Eye. 
 
Cameras, drones, and thousands of troops monitor Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria. The country’s rules of engagement are lethal and effective: would-be intruders are told to stop with a few warning shots; if these are ignored, they are fired upon, with fighter jets scrambled for larger targets. Aid workers familiar with a stretch of border in the north describe a splay of donkey skeletons bleaching in the sun after border forces unleashed defensive fire on a would-be smuggler’s four-legged foray into Jordan. 
 
Despite this tight border control, Jordan’s government news agency Petra blamed a “dramatic” increase in attempts to cross the border when it announced the country’s participation in the US-led air strikes this week. The Kingdom, the agency reported, was striking terrorist positions being used as “a springboard for operations against Jordanian territory”.
 
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he sees this as a case of Jordan leaping the fence to do some regional housekeeping, rather than waiting for the fence to be leapt. 
 
“I think the problem is that the successes of ISIS can rally Salafists and other jihadists to their side. Roll them back, watch that support wither. But how to do so permanently is the hard part,” said Tabler. 
 
Inside Jordan, it is mainly Salafists and other militants in small groups well-known to security services who make violent threats against the state. Despite well-publicised bursts of violence under a black flag in Jordan’s deprived southern city of Ma’an, all available intelligence suggests Jordan’s extremist landscape does not yet include the Islamic State in any meaningful way. 
 
When MEE visited Ma’an in May after a week of unrest following the death of a 19-year-old, allegedly shot and killed by Jordanian riot troops, residents in the town said the black flag, flown elsewhere by Islamic State, had been raised as an anti-authority message to the government, not an announcement that they had joined ranks with the militant group.
 
“This propaganda about extremism taking hold in Ma’an has been going around since 1989,” said Hassan al-Imami, a 22-year-old cousin of the shot teen. “Our problems are poverty and unemployment. Unemployed young men have to have problems. If there were jobs, there wouldn’t be any problems.”
 
Al-Momani, the minister of information, confirmed the residents' assertions.
 
“If you want to ask the question, is there a Da’esh [the Arabic abbreviation for IS] organisational structure in Ma’an, absolutely not. Is there a terrorist structure in Ma’an, absolutely not. We know that for a fact,” said al-Momani.
 
Even amongst Jordan’s Salafists, anti-IS sentiment is on the rise. Two of the country’s highest-profile Salafists, Assem Barqawi, better known as Abu Mohammad al-Maqdesi, and Abu Qatada, a cleric once linked with al-Qaeda and just this week declared innocent of decade-old terrorism charges, have repeatedly spoken out against the Islamic State.
 
Sean Yom, a political science professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and an expert on Jordanian tribal politics, said he thinks Jordan’s home-grown extremists are feeling pressure to distinguish themselves from the militant problem fomenting in Syria and Iraq.
 
“Once King Abdullah publicly said Jordan was on board with the campaign against the caliphate, the writing on the wall was clear: this could be like the 2001-2003 security crackdown all over again, when many moderates were arrested. Salafists are clearly distinguishing themselves from Salafist-jihadists more strongly now.”
 
It’s worth noting that Salafism, a conservative interpretation of Islam, is on a spectrum that includes many peaceful people. Only those at the most violent end of the spectrum raise the concern of the state.
 
Yet Jordan’s Salafists tend to cluster in its most deprived cities, places like Ma’an, Zarqa, Ajloun, Mafraq and Tafila. Without jobs to pay for homes, marriages and families, many educated young Jordanian men feel they are stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for their adult lives to begin. Bitterness and a sense of disenfranchisement set in. 
 
Most of Jordan’s problems are widely seen to have economic roots. As the thinking goes, fewer disenchanted, disenfranchised young men would shrink the space available for the kind of thinking and rhetoric that leads to violence. But social scientist Yom thinks the answer is about more than just a shortage of money and dangerous regional influences. 
 
“The people joining the Salafists are overeducated, underserved young Jordanians, mostly East Bankers, who live with their families and have adequate shelter, food and services. For that problem, you can blame other factors, from social engagement to education – issues much harder to deal with when you are government,” he said.
 
While Jordan’s move to take military action on targets in Syria and its offer of special forces troops in any future ground action in Syria suggest a proactive stance, economically the country is in reactive mode, reeling from the cost of a refugee influx and a fast-growing population. Social engagement, energy and education reform are on a long list headed by a single aim: keeping the country secure. 
 
For Jordan, there is a balance to strike between policing borders and minimising the threat beyond them, and giving those within the country the means and motive to reject violence. Military action may deliver immediate results, but work of supporting the country’s security from the inside is longer-term, complex and arguably more challenging.