Jordan’s Syria Problem

Syrians in a Sandstorm.jpg

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

Syrians in a sandstorm at the Zaatari refugee camp, northern Jordan, August 31, 2012

In a whitewashed apartment in Irbid, Jordan, near the Syrian border, officers who have defected from the Syrian air force are lunching on shakria, chunks of lamb in yoghurt, and performing the Muslim rites that are banned by the Syrian government. They open their meal with a blessing, stroke their newly grown beards, and conclude with the afternoon call to prayer led by Abu Obeyda, a white-bearded Islamist of Palestinian origin, who lost several fingers fighting alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. When I get up to wash my hands my host rushes to stop me, lest I leave the room before he has verified that his wife or daughters are safely out of view.

Jordanian officials like to distinguish between rebel forces in Syria comprised of tribal fighters and army defectors in the south, who they claim have been carefully vetted with western backing, and more radical fighters backed by Turkey advancing into Damascus from the north. But as the uprising in Syria takes on an increasingly sectarian cast, Jordan has become a crucial center for the Islamist opposition—fighters, regime defectors, and their supporters, who speak of replacing the secular-Alawite regime with a new government that brings a Sunni majority to power. More extremist groups, like Jabhat al-Nasra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate based in and around Aleppo that wants to establish a caliphate, have strengthened their numbers with Jordanian recruits in the south, and are fighting to take the capital first. And while Jordan’s own secular monarchy contends with hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Syrian refugees, it is fearful that the conflict is also creating a powerful cause for its own restless Islamists.

In recent months, Syrian army defectors, almost all of whom are themselves Sunni, have turned to Jordanian mosques for logistical support, ranging from housing for fighters seeking a temporary haven to help returning to Syria with official permission. One renegade Syrian officer told me in November that a thousand rebels recuperating in Jordan, whom he called mujahideen, had already returned to the front, despite having signed Jordanian waivers stating that they were heading home and would not fight. Since then, the numbers have multiplied as the battle against the Assad regime moves to the southern suburbs of Damascus. And though most of the munitions entering Syria come across other borders, a merchant with ties to the well-established Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is running guns to groups in southern Syria, according to a Western diplomat.

Despite Jordan’s claims that it is vetting the rebels to keep radicals out, the kingdom has become a prime source for foreign recruits. Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, a Jordanian Jihadi preacher from Irbid who was jailed in 2005 for plotting to attack Americans and Israelis in the city, claims his followers have sent some 350 fighters into Syria, including some fifty last month alone. While the numbers cannot be verified, Jordanians were on a list of foreign nationals who have joined the rebel cause and been killed in the conflict, according to a list the Syrian government presented to the UN last fall. A new study by the Quilliam Foundation also suggests that Jabhat al-Nasra is highly disciplined and that “Iraqis and Jordanians constitute the main body of foreigners” who have joined its ranks.

All of this has posed a complicated challenge for Jordan’s King Abdullah. Although the King has called for Assad to step down, he also hopes to maintain a more secular order in a new Syria and has long been wary of how the conflict is giving his own Muslim Brotherhood growing clout. For years the Brotherhood has been one of the most organized political forces in the kingdom. And while the movement has remained loyal to the monarchy and worked within the system, its leaders has shown an increasing readiness to challenge royal authority in recent months, as their counterparts in other countries have swept to power. “If the Middle East is going to be run by the Brotherhood, we’re all screwed, and you can kiss moderate Islam goodbye,” a senior government official recently told me.

In an attempt to prevent Syria from turning Islamist, Abdullah has turned to Western powers for help. Citing concern that Syria’s chemical weapons’ stockpiles could fall into the wrong hands, he has welcomed more than a hundred American, British, and French military advisers into Jordan to address this menace, as well as deal with the influx of refugees and help prevent a spillover of the conflict itself. Meanwhile, Jordanian officials have strongly backed Western efforts to replace the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council with a mixed-bag opposition that is inclusive of Alawites and other minorities. Amman has opened its doors to non-Islamist defectors, hosting soldiers, technocrats, and former senior Baathists, including Assad’s former prime minister, Riad Hijab, who defected last August.


To prepare for a possible Syrian breakup or a major push by Islamists from the north, some Jordanian officials have discussed creating a buffer zone in southern Syria, defended by tribal forces straddling the Jordanian border who would be equipped and trained to block the passage of Islamist fighters into the kingdom. Jordan is particularly concerned about Jabhat al-Nasra, which the US declared a terrorist group in December. Syrian rebel offices in Jordan say the group, which is estimated to number some 5,000 fighters, remains part of the Free Syrian Army, is Syrian led, and is not a clone of al-Qaeda. But there have been reports that it has appointed Mustafa Abdul Latif Al Saleh, a Jordanian from Zarqa, a Palestinian refugee camp north of Amman, as its emir. He is said to brother-in-law of former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mussab Zarqawi.

Containing the Islamist drift of Syria’s rebellion is a difficult and perhaps impossible task. Jubhat al-Nasra has a branch just across the border in the Syrian city of Daraa replete with its own website and a reputation for providing welfare amid chaos. The Brotherhood, too, continues to have great influence in the revamped Syrian opposition coalition; and for all the Jordanian vetting, defectors from the Syrian army have quickly shed their nationalist rhetoric for an Islamist one. Training is officially off-limits at the Jordanian desert camp near Mafraq, where an estimated 1,100 rebel Syrian fighters have been housed. But hundreds more Syrian army defectors, including the air force officers I met in Irbid, have established close ties to Jordan’s increasingly confident Islamist opposition, some of whom have Jihadi ties and are helping them stay in the conflict.

Logistical support comes in many guises. Thanks to the donation of thousands of Jordanian SIM cards, rebels can remain in contact with their men in the field via Jordan’s mobile networks, whose coverage extends into Daraa, the city which launched Syria’s uprising. Palestinian refugee camps ringing Amman, Jordan’s capital, have staged widely-attended memorials—or “martyrs weddings”—for a handful of residents said to have died as suicide-bombers in Syria. Amongst the dead is Jordanian preacher Tahawi’s thirty-year-old son-in-law, Mahmoud Abdel-Aal, who reportedly blew himself up when he drove a truck packed with explosives into a military base in Daraa in October.

Wary of fueling Islamist tendencies in southern Syria, Jordan’s forces have sought to keep the most radical Jordanians from crossing the border. In October, a Jordanian border guard was killed in a gun-battle with Jihadi fighters on their way into Syria. Jordanian officials have also highlighted the risks of Jihadi blowback inside the kingdom, publicizing the arrest of eleven militants who were allegedly plotting to target the US embassy and Amman’s shopping malls. Local pundits warn that Syria’s Jihad may pose an even greater threat to Jordan’s stability than the war in Iraq, which led to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s bombings of three Amman hotels in 2005, in which sixty people were killed. “We had a 650-mile desert buffer with Iraq, but Syria’s fighting is right on our borders,” says Oraib Rantawi, an erstwhile royal advisor who now runs a Jordanian think-tank.

al-Tahawi in Daraa.jpg

Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images

The father of a jihadi who blew himself up at a Syrian military base in Daraa in October (left), with Jordanian Salafist leader Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, north of Amman, Jordan, November 1, 2012

Nightly fire fights between rebels and Syrian government forces near the border have intensified in recent weeks and Jordan’s border guards have come under repeated attack by Syrian soldiers shooting at rebels fleeing into the kingdom. In a rare instance of Jordanian military action, soldiers shot at on Syrian forces on December 7 after two Jordanians were wounded in the crossfire. But Syria has not bombed Jordan’s border as it has Turkey’s, and more threatening to Amman than the direct fire is the continued influx of refugees; authorities claim that over 250,000 have already entered the country.

Initially Jordan followed Lebanon, in allowing refugees to mingle freely with the local population. But as the influx intensified, Jordan adopted Turkey’s approach of erecting vast internment camps, perhaps in an attempt to prevent Syria’s Sunni rebels inspiring their Jordanian counterparts. When I visited Zaatari recently, a flat dust-blown desert outpost surrounded by razor wire with sentries posted at its gates, thousands of Syrians were being held there. Babies are born in the wind, sleet and rain. Rare winter storms are sweeping their tents away. Inmates pass the day swapping photos of the corpses of loved ones on their mobile phones, and bemoan their flight from one purgatory to another. Frustration frequently turns to protest. As I left the camp at sundown, riot police banged their shields in preparation for a showdown with camp internees protesting the lack of food. The detritus of previous clashes—a torched fire-brigade post, a looted medicine store—litters the camp. French soldiers stand guard apprehensively behind their field hospital fence.


Out of a sense of solidarity and tribal loyalty, some Jordanians are sheltering tribal kinsmen from over the border, and have sought to spirit them out of the camps. Despite reports that 60,000 Syrians have passed through Zaatari, UN aid workers express surprise at how empty it feels. After Jordan’s secret police ransacked the Amman apartment where his family was living illegally, Amin al-Masri, a Syrian who was forced to flee from Daraa, found refuge with the Faiz tribe in their domain east of Amman, which is off-limits to Jordan’s security forces. “I’ve given only a little so far,” he smiles. Though his eldest son was killed fighting in Daraa, he puts his arm round another son, a 14-year-old, and encourages him to head to the front. “Freedom is expensive.”

Others have gone into hiding. A widow who fled with her six young children to Jordan in July keeps them cooped in doors in an Irbid flat with the curtains drawn for fear the police will intern them if they catch them in the park. “Daddy is coming, Daddy is coming,” she comforts her sobbing toddler, nursing him with cups of sweet Turkish coffee, even though his father was killed a month earlier. Only the horror of what she escaped keeps her from heading back. To get to Jordan, she drugged the toddler with sleeping pills lest his cries alerted Syrian troops as they made the run over the border. Her husband’s last words before saying goodbye were “you have forty seconds. If a child falls, keep running and don’t look back.” “Some dropped their suitcases, others their children,” she says, recalling gunfire that pursued them into the night. “I saw three killed in the fields.”

As Syria’s civil war worsens, Jordanian officials say they fear a far larger exodus to come. The collapse of the single power station supplying 10 million Syrians in the south, they warn, could precipitate a mass rush to the border. Fighting has already enveloped the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus’ southern suburbs, home to 150,000 Palestinians and a million Syrians. Syrian airstrikes on rebel positions have made refugees of the camp’s population yet again, killing twenty-five of them inside a mosque where they had sought refuge .Tens of thousands who had fled the camp returned after an agreement between rival factions of Palestinians in Syria. But on January 7, said Palestinians in Yarmouk, shelling and sniper fire killed five people on the main road through the camp. Palestinians are fleeing again.

For Jordan’s indigenous East Bankers, the prospect of another wave of Palestinian refugees, following the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who arrived in previous decades, threatens to continue the process that over six decades has eroded their own status and turned them into a minority in their own country. Determined to keep out the Palestinians even after the bombardment of Daraa and Yarmouk camps, Jordan has allowed in only 2,000 of them, refusing entry to all the rest, including the widow’s husband, a rebel commander, who was sent back to his death in Syria after the rest of his Syrian unit was allowed in.

The few who sneaked in before Jordan closed its borders are penned in an abandoned hostel for Asian migrant workers in Cybercity, a largely empty industrial business park in northern Jordan. The graffiti on the hostel walls declares “Revolutionaries of Daraa,” but most feel more like prisoners than freedom fighters. Police maintain a twenty-four-hour watch at a checkpoint thirty meters from the hostel door. Relatives need permits to visit. Because of Jordanian pressure, the UN refuses to register them, unlike other refugees coming from Syria, as asylum seekers. “No one wants us,” says Rabhi Yousef, a retired Palestinian engineer who after four months of internment still wears a tie and pin-striped trousers and carries a walking stick in a vain attempt to keep up appearances. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has appealed to Israel to let them cross via Jordan into his West Bank cities, to no avail.

Should Syria fall to the Islamists, Jordan’s geopolitical situation might look much like it did in the 1950s, when anti-colonial Arab Nationalism swept through the region, leaving Jordan’s British-backed monarchy sandwiched between a Nasserist union of Egypt and Syria. Abdullah’s father, “pepperpot” King Hussein, survived long after Nasserism, ironically helped by support from the same Muslim Brotherhood his son now decries as a secret society bent on establishing a regional theocracy. Unlike his father or his fellow monarch, Mohammed VI of Morocco, King Abdullah has even shied from engaging his homegrown Islamists, leaving him even more isolated than his father was. Meanwhile, as Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, claims leadership of the new Sunni order, the Jordanian monarch increasingly seems to represent the old, although tensions between the two countries have temporarily eased after Egypt resumed its much gas supplies to Jordan. King Abdullah may yet regret the day he called on President Bashar to leave office, helping pave the way for the Islamists at his gates.

This is the first of two articles about Jordan in the new Middle East.

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