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Jordan and Isis: ‘Until We Run Out of Fuel and Bullets’?

Shashank Joshi
Commentary, 11 February 2015
International Security Studies, Iraq, Syria, Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
Jordan has made good on its pledge to strike hard at Isis for the brutal murder of its downed pilot. But what are the risks to the Kingdom, and what more can it do?

In 1958, as Lebanon and Iraq convulsed in crisis, Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir told British Prime Minister Selwyn Lloyd ‘we all pray three times a day for King Hussein’s safety and success’. At that time, Meir’s Israel and Hussein’s Jordan were technically in a state of war, and would clash again less than a decade later. When Meir’s successor Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to King Abdullah on 5 February, with Jordan’s neighbours once more in turmoil, he probably voiced similar sentiments.

Over the last fourteen years, the Kingdom has been largely, though not entirely, spared the very worst of the extreme violence that tore apart Syria and Iraq, rocked Lebanon, and even reached into Saudi Arabia. But Jordan now hosts over a million Syrians, the vast majority outside refugee camps, costing more than £2 billion to support. The war is at its doorstep. Jordan deployed troops and armour to its border with Iraq last July, to the Syrian border in December, and was a founding member of the US-led military coalition against Isis.

That war came home directly with the downing, capture, and last month’s grisly murder of pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh. King Abdullah promised to hit Isis hard until Jordan had ‘run out of fuel and bullets’, and Jordanian aircraft conducted 56 sorties against Isis targets in the space of three days (followed by the implausible argument that these had ‘degraded’ a fifth of Isis’ capability). Jordan also sent thousands more of its troops to the Iraqi border, in tandem with this escalation.

But Abdullah’s dilemma, as he decides how far to escalate and for how long, is that his is a vulnerable state, considerably poorer than its Gulf Arab allies, lodged underneath two collapsing countries. Its population is divided between so-called ‘East Banker’ native Jordanians and ‘West Banker’ Palestinians, and riven with tribal divisions that the palace must manage carefully. According to a September poll, only 62 percent of Jordanians view Isis as a threat, 1500 Jordanians are currently fighting with Isis, and 21 Jordanian parliamentarians publicly objected to the country’s participation in the coalition.

At the same time, Jordan’s national strategy has long been built around close partnerships with every regional power, including Israel, thereby giving each one a stake in Jordan’s survival as a moderate, stable ally in the heart of the region.  Jordan has become a key node for US counterterrorism missions across the region. In mid-2013, the US sent Patriot air-defence missile batteries, F-16 fighters, and a several hundred-strong team of military personnel to Jordan. This week, the US boosted its aid to Jordan by more than 50 percent, to $1 billion per year until 2017. Gulf Arab states have pledged about as much. Jordan has also been a hub for covert American efforts to arm and train Syrian rebels, committed to training Iraqi security forces itself, and played a key role in pressing Sunni tribes in Iraq to turn on Isis.   

Playing an active role in the regional crises, rather than cowering passively under a US security umbrella, is more than self-defence: it’s a way of demonstrating Jordan’s utility and reliability, and therefore obtaining external guarantees of Jordanian security. But the tension is constant. For instance, Amman benefits from close security cooperation with Israel and last year agreed a deal that would have supplied Israeli natural gas to the energy-starved Kingdom. However, tension between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem provoked uproar in Jordan, eventually forcing the cancellation of what was a highly favourable deal. Although domestic opinion has not prevented Amman from retaliating against Isis, an intensification of the extremist threat to the Kingdom or a perception that the military campaign is failing – whether by failing to weaken Isis, or by entrenching Bashar al-Assad’s position in Syria – could constrain Jordan’s options. 

What more can Jordan do?

Bombing Isis further will have limited results. Airstrikes are most effective when ground forces can exploit them, and few such forces exist in Syria outside of Kurdish groups in the far north. Jordan could expand its attacks into Iraq, but the Iraqi government would be wary of permitting Sunni Arab nations, many of which diplomatically isolated Iraq for the last decade, to start bombing the Shia-majority country. Jordan has not acknowledged whether any of its strikes in recent weeks have been in Iraq.

The journalist Hassan Hassan has argued that Jordan can best tackle Isis by extending further assistance to mainstream, non-jihadist Syrian rebels operating in Syria’s southern front around Deraa and Quneitra. In recent weeks, the Syrian regime, supported by Hezbollah, has made advances in this area, particularly against Al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. However, it’s unclear whether Jordan would be willing to intensify its support for rebels, on any significant scale, independently of broader, slow-moving US training and equipping programmes which seem to be focused on Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

One of Jordan’s most useful contribution might be its special forces, notably its 71st Counterterrorism Battalion, and its intelligence agency, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), both of which are respected by their Western counterparts. However, a leaked US diplomatic cable from 2006 noted that these much-hyped forces, personally commanded by Abdullah in the early 1990s, were ‘incapable of extended external operations without significant US logistical support and augmentation’. Moreover, Jordan will be wary of placing more personnel at risk of abduction. Another Arab ally, the UAE, suspended its own bombing missions last month, demanding that the US put in place more search and rescue teams. Since then, the UAE’s concerns have been partially addressed, and UAE F16s have been seconded to Jordan and conducted sorties in Syria from there. This has the additional benefit of allowing the UAE to defend its participation, domestically, as solidarity with Jordan rather than just assistance to an American war. Over the longer-term, an expanded Arab role on the ground, facilitated by Western coalition members, may be one of the best ways to make airstrikes more effective inside Syria.

As Abdullah treads this difficult path, Jordan’s traditional Western partners, including Britain, should offer firm, vocal, and material support. This does not mean Jordan should be let off from adhering to its own ambitious, but unevenly implemented, commitments to political reform. Regional crisis and domestic extremism do not make reform a luxury; they make it all the more necessary. Nevertheless, the more secure Jordan feels in its alliances, the more assertive and useful a role it can play in the fight against Isis. It is a fight that still has years to run. 



Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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