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ISIL Impact on Jordan: Amman Pushes Back

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It is not clear yet how prudent were the public statements coming from Amman to indicate that Jordan is determined to confront ISIL beyond its borders. King Abdullah pointed to his country’s willingness to support Arab Sunni tribes in east Syria and west Iraq to fight ISIL. “The world understands the important role of Jordan in regional stability and ending the crisis in Syria and Iraq” the King said in a recent press interview. “We will support the Arab tribal brothers beyond our borders”, he told Jordanian tribal notables in the northern Jordanian desert.

Few days earlier, the Chief of Jordan’s armed forces General Musha’l Al Zain gave a speech in a ceremony celebrating Independence Day. In his speech, the general was blunt in warning that his country will follow any threat beyond the borders if needed. “We will exercise our right of self-defense against any threat even beyond our borders”. In the ceremony aired by public TV June 9, the General received the flag of the Hashemite from the king. The flag was officially added to the banners of the various branches of the armed forces. The Hashemite flag, a symbol of the historic roots of the ruling family, carries the same Islamic verse like the flag of ISIL.

The symbolic gesture of adding the Hashemite flag to the banners of the armed forces may have been designed to show that ISIL does not have a monopoly over the faith. However, the bold official statements that came with the gesture triggered a wave of reactions and speculations in Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Syrian authorities gathered some of their supporters among the notables of twelve tribes in a conference to declare “their complete rejection of the King’s offer”. While the tribal conference, held June 12 in Damascus, was headed by regime officials, Syria’s ambassador in the UN condemned the King’s “threats to the sovereignty of Syria”. However, Al Naim tribes in Syria welcomed publicly Amman’s offer. “Arab tribes are the back bone of the unity of our homeland. The tribes are the protection of Syria from fragmentation caused by sectarian forces and the regime of Assad alike”, an Al Naim tribal council declared in a communique last week.

Commentators in Iraq said that Amman wants to “inherit” ISIL territory after the demise of the group. Several reports in Damascus, Baghdad and even Amman pointed to an imaginary Jordanian “plan” to annex ungoverned territories in both Syria and Iraq. Conspiracy theories about a Jordanian attempt to use the “collapse” of Sykes-Picot borders to expand the Kingdom’s territories were raised. All the “usual suspects”, analysts, commentators and “experts” started reading in Jordan’s official statements whatever nonsense they saw fit.

The probable explanation of the official blunt statements coming from Amman is that Jordanian authorities sought to mobilize the population around the national flag and cast ISIL as a foreign enemy. Amman wanted as well to warn that it will preempt any attack on Jordanian territories if detected in neighboring country.

Yet, the most important aspect of these bold statements could be found in the circulating expectations of a larger role proposed for Amman in arming Arab tribes in Syria and Iraq to fight ISIL. Jordan denies any intentions in that regard.

If this was indeed the objective, it was poorly served. Rarely, major policies need to be publicized. So far, Jordan is doing what it takes to repel the threats of ISIL and any potential dangers coming from Jabhat Al Nusra (JAN) which is expanding quickly on the other side of its northern borders. JAN was assisted, directly and indirectly, by the Jordanians before. It is the old mantra of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” turning, as it usually does, to a direct threat of two enemies not just one. The valid explanation which should be provided to all who are willing to listen is that Jordan is simply protecting itself through a preemptive policy. The ways to do that should be kept for the discretion of the government.

Amman established a digital fence on its borders and devoted substantial resources and energy to protect its territories. Surveillance equipment, sensors and early warning systems are deployed in a way that almost seals the borders. However, security has never been merely a technical challenge. It is mainly a strategic issue where the political, military and technical aspects are integrated.

Yet, there is indeed a new dimension to the national security threats of the Hashemite Kingdom. JAN is spreading its control in south Syria faster than any one can follow. What makes things appear less alarming when seen from the outside is that the Al Qaeda affiliated group works within the frame of alliances with other groups. It declines to take any considerable role in the front raw. But it controls the situation tightly on the ground. This tactic helps the organization reduce its visibility and avoid any regional or international backlash. For example, it declines to “govern” liberated area so far as the rule of Sharia is implemented by others. But when it comes to strategic spots of military significance, like Nasib crossing point, it shows its teeth to the extent of fighting it close allies for control.

However, even within JAN’s alliances with other groups, the “borders’ between the entities are only imaginary once we look deeper than the leadership structures of these organizations. Cross- organization migration is a daily occurrence. The alarming point is not obtaining more arms, the organization has a substantial quantity of arms taken from regime camps and other sources. The alarming point is that no one knows for sure the real “boundary” of the organization, nor its ultimate plan even in limited areas like south Syria.

The real threat facing Jordan’s national security is indeed evolving rapidly with the breath taking development around the Kingdom. Over reaction sometimes reveal weaknesses that should not be revealed. Arresting a prominent Salafi figure, Ayad Al Qutaibi was in fact needless. The old wisdom of Jordan’s security machine of dialogue and containment proved to be very effective in the past. There is no reason it would not work now.

That is not to say that internal security should not be tightened. But the problem appears when that specific and sound objective is taken by bureaucratically minded security officers. They usually over-do it or under-do it. They understand it in security terms, not in political terms. In most cases, harsh prison sentences for the slightest on-line sign of sympathy with a terrorist group ends up with turning the accused youngster into a member in a terrorist group. Recently, authorities arrested over 50 youth for social media comments. Some of the comments were too ridiculous to deserve any attention at all. Gradual punishment, if any, and close surveillance should be enough in most cases. Harshening the prison sentence is hardly a security measure.

Jordan has many reasons to be nervous. It is in the center of a perfect storm. JAN has quite some support inside the country, particularly among tribes that extend across the borders to south Syria and west Iraq. Yet, composed and measured steps are more important now than ever. Arming the Arab tribes in Syria or Iraq could be done without public fanfare. This way it will be more effective. That is if it is not just scare tactics by Amman addressed at the Kingdom’s enemies. But if it were, that will not fare well in the battle fields around the kingdom neither.

It is not easy to be in Jordanian officials’ shoe now. But it is particularly now that calm and composed security policies are needed most.