Bolstering Jordan to Enhance Regional Security

Zaatari refugee camp

President Barack Obama can significantly bolster regional security and advance US interests in his upcoming trip to the Middle East by offering increased support to Jordan to help it cope with the highly consequential spillover effects of the conflict in Syria. The influx of 3,000 refugees per day into Jordan from Syria—including an unknown number of Islamist extremists— threatens Jordan’s economic and political stability. Absent greater support from the international community, coupled with broader, swifter internal reforms, the Jordanian government could eventually collapse under these growing pressures. The loss of Jordan as an anchor of stability and peace would be a huge blow to the region, and could unleash a chain reaction devastating to US interests, including the security of Israel and stability of the greater Middle East.

Policy Context

The early second term travels of Obama and his new foreign policy team offer an opportunity for the administration to reset its relations with regional allies. For good reasons, nearly all of the attention regarding the president’s Middle East trip has focused on the stopover in Israel, his first as US president. Indeed, it is critical that the president shore up his strained relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu and demonstrate American solidarity with Israel and US commitment to regional security in the face of the threat from Iran’s nuclear program. Syria, too, will feature high on the agenda, particularly given concerns about the rise of extremist elements in the opposition and the possibility of Syrian chemical and biological weapons falling into the hands of al Qaeda-linked militants. Yet what Obama says and does in Jordan may be more important to Israeli security and regional stability than any statement or initiative he undertakes in Israel itself.

Jordan’s Strategic Importance to Regional Security

Jordan is a linchpin for Middle East security and stability. The uncertain direction of Egypt makes a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Jordan even more essential to regional peace and the security of Israel. Yet given its borders with Israel and the Palestinian territories, Jordan is a coveted target for Islamist extremists who know that Jordanian instability—much less its takeover by a retrograde regime— would do enormous harm to Israel and make resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exponentially more difficult.

Even prior to the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Jordanian monarchy had come under domestic pressure for the slow pace of reform in the face of rapid political change elsewhere in the region. The corruption of the government—including those close to the royal family—is as much a threat to the regime’s stability as any external factor. The slow and incomplete pace of political reform is another major problem for Jordan, which falls short of the demands of its frustrated citizens. While January’s parliamentary elections were generally fair, the main opposition Islamic Action Front party chose to boycott them. Obama should politely push for further progress in his meeting with King Abdullah, while declining to praise an incomplete reform effort. But he should also carry a message of American friendship and concrete support for a crucial ally and anchor of regional stability.

Israel is deeply concerned that Jordan’s economic, humanitarian, and political challenges could lead to the fall of a neighboring government with whom it has a pivotal peace agreement. In his meeting with Abdullah, Obama should encourage broader, speedier reforms, while offering concrete initiatives that promote the country’s political stability, economic health, and development. Part of this effort should involve renewed US leadership in the region, to include engagement on the Middle East peace process. A second part must involve enhanced US support for the Jordanian government to meet the escalating economic, political, and humanitarian crisis in managing the influx of Syrian refugees.

The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Jordan’s Stability

The ongoing conflict in Syria threatens to undermine the political stability of Jordan. Refugees are pouring into Jordan at a rate of 3,000 per day, with no end in sight.

Handling these refugees—now numbering well above 330,000—is estimated to have cost Jordan over $1.27 billion in 2012. The bulk have settled into Jordanian cities and towns, where they are straining limited resources, pushing up prices of real estate and commodities, and driving down wages. These shocks to the fragile Jordanian economy come on top of the pressures created by massive numbers of West Bank and Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

The influx of Syrian refugees is also introducing extremist elements into Jordan. According to Jordanian and Israeli sources, there is a significant measure of jihadist infiltration in the refugee flow from Syria, but to what degree is impossible to verify. Border security is a major challenge for the Jordanian government, as militants fighting the Syrian regime move back and forth across the border to visit family and seek medical attention in Jordan. While the primary goal of extremist elements in the Syrian opposition is the overthrow of the Assad regime and filling the power vacuum at the expense of more liberal reformers, they also hope to destabilize Jordan as well. More extreme elements may look to take advantage of the flow of weapons to Syria to launch terrorist attacks within Jordan and eventually use Jordan as a staging area to pressure Israel.

It is not difficult to imagine that a confluence of factors —domestic political dissatisfaction, economic weakness, the crush of refugees, the flow of Islamists and weapons from Syria in Jordan—could result in the collapse of the ruling Hashemite monarchy and create an opportunity for the emergence of an Islamist government hostile to Israel. Such an outcome would be a tremendous blow to the prospects for an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, a boon for Iran and other extremist influences in the region, and a significant setback for US interests.

The scenario could worsen still. In January, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to dissolve the PA if Israel’s new government does not return to peace talks. The additional pressure brought to bear by an unstable Jordan could usher in that reality. This step would make Israel again responsible for the security, sustenance, and governance of the West Bank. The reaction to such a scenario on the Arab street would be devastating at a time when the outcome of the Arab Awakening hangs in the balance. 

Moving backwards in the peace process would stoke extremist passions worldwide, strengthening Iran and its terrorist clients, while drastically increasing the potential for violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The high economic, diplomatic, strategic, and moral cost to Israel of being in charge of the affairs of the Palestinians is a price that Israel cannot afford—particularly when facing the existential threat from Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  

Possible US Policy Options to Support Jordan

Given the scope of challenges facing Jordan and its strategic importance to regional security, Obama should consider the following ways he could advance US interests and regional security by enhancing Jordan’s stability on his upcoming trip to the region:

  • The United States should increase its financial and humanitarian support for Syrian refugees in Jordan, while also taking steps to ensure its current support is properly branded. The State Department should ensure that the American flag flies in the US-supported Zaatari refugee camp which houses the majority of registered Syrian refugees in Jordan under the direction of the United Nations. Donating US-branded prefabricated housing—Zaatari’s greatest need—would be particularly useful in bolstering the image of the United States and assisting Jordan’s ability to house the growing number of refugees.
  • The United States should provide technological and advisory assistance to bolster the security of the Jordanian-Syrian border to help manage the flow of refugees and protect against infiltration by jihadists seeking trouble—and not shelter—in Jordan. 
  • The United States should seek ways to build on the US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement and other mechanisms to increase job-creating trade and investment in Jordan to fortify the country’s  resilience and stability.
  • The United States should do more to help Jordan address its major shortages in energy and water, which limit economic growth and worsen instability. US policymakers should more actively encourage American investment in shale development in Jordan, as well as the newly announced oil pipeline from Iraq to Aqaba, Jordan. The United States should also engage in robust regional diplomacy to foster bilateral and multilateral water development and conservation projects between Jordan and its neighbors, to include US government support and private investment in the construction of the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal, which would alleviate Jordan’s severe water shortages and provide resources to the region.
  • The United States should pressure its Gulf allies to keep, and even expand, their existing financial and economic development commitments to Jordan. The Gulf allies have a keen interest in Jordan’s stability as well, and have made major commitments to provide financial assistance to Amman. Yet the Gulf States are inconsistent in their follow through and waver on keeping their pledges as a means of politically leveraging Jordan.
  • The United States should lead a multinational initiative including Jordan and key Gulf states, and other members of the international community focused on developing and implementing a coherent, multinational strategy to address the management of Syrian refugees in Jordan. This effort should address ways these countries can best coordinate their assistance to the refugees, bolster the capacity of Jordan to absorb and sustain the refugees, and also support the territorial integrity and stability of Jordan in the face of the Syrian conflict.   
  • On the strategic level, the president’s first-term ‘pivot to Asia’ should be followed by a more robust second-term engagement of the Middle East, which remains the most volatile and dangerous region for US interests. As part of this renewed engagement, the administration should consider setting out terms of reference for negotiations between Israel and the PA as a starting point for a renewed peace process.

John Raidt is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and served as the deputy to the special envoy to Middle East regional security in 2008. Jeff Lightfoot is the deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Photo credit: Estonian Foreign Ministry Flickr

Related Experts: Jeffrey Lightfoot and John Raidt

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