Jordan has tried to maintain a neutral position since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution—at least publicly. Its fear is that should Bashar Al-Assad weather the uprising, his government would retaliate against Jordanian backing of its opponents.
But the Syrian crisis has already placed Jordan in the midst of the storm as the country struggles to tame a staggering budget deficit and a refugee crisis. There are roughly half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan, and this number could more than double once the battle in Syria heats up and reaches Damascus. Jordan is also worried about Assad sleeper cells, which could destabilize the country’s security situation.
At the opposite extreme, there is an ongoing threat from the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian Islamist rebel group. Although the Front’s fighters are mostly concentrated in the north, it also has a presence on the fringes of Dera’a, near the Jordanian border. Should the Assad government be toppled, Jordan could become a haven for jihadis—who are probably already celebrating that they do not have to travel to far-off places like Afghanistan in order to fight. Attacking Israel is their dream, and striking Jordan could be on their agenda as well. Several hundred hard-core Jordanian Salafists have already joined the fighting in Syria, hoping to see an Islamic emirate materialize.
“We are not crazy to fight with the rebels for democracy, [or] a civil or a secular state,” said one Salafist whose brother was killed fighting for the Al-Nusra Front last summer.
Jordan’s involvement in the Syrian crisis came to the fore last month when US defense secretary Chuck Hagel announced the deployment of an additional 200 US troops in Jordan to help its military improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios involving Syria.
Talk of military training for vetted rebels, opening two corridors of its airspace to Israeli Air Force drones to monitor the conflict in Syria—as mentioned in Le Figaro—and reports about the deployment of Patriot missiles along the border with Jordan and Syria is making it increasingly difficult for the government to keep the public in the dark.
It is well-known that Jordan’s intelligence is one of the best in the region, and that it cooperates closely with the CIA. The country’s special intelligence forces, Fursan Al-Haq (Knights of Justice), provided information to US intelligence that led to the killing of a Jordanian militant terrorizing Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, in 2006. Furthermore, existing cooperation between Jordan’s intelligence services involves intelligence sharing on Al-Nusra and other Salafist groups active in northern Syria, which could be used to crack down on jihadi groups in a post-Assad Syria.
Beyond cooperating with the US on the military and intelligence fronts, US support will likely help the Jordanian government address the economic challenges it faces at home. This assistance will be welcomed by the Jordanian leadership at a time when the government is planning to move ahead with electricity subsidy cuts to meet the International Monetary Fund’s conditions for economic assistance.