ANALYSIS: The Upheavals in the Middle East Have Reached Jordan

YERUSHALAYIM -
Jordanian policemen stand guard after ending security operations in the vicinity of Karak Castle, where armed gunmen carried out an attack Sunday, in the city of Karak, Jordan, Monday. (Reuters/Muhammad Hamed)

Sunday’s terrorist attacks in Jordan shine the spotlight once again on the endangered Hashemite Kingdom – surrounded by regions of unrest, war and conflict, battered economically by the entry of 1.5 million refugees, and now hit by the arousal of IS sleeper cells in its midst. Hamodia’s military correspondent analyzes the situation in Amman, as well as its possible ramifications on the State of Israel and the entire region.

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Jordan awoke Monday to a nightmare that had long been awaited. It had been more a question of when, rather than if, IS terrorists would once again renew their murderous activity in the small Middle Eastern kingdom – and it in fact happened Sunday, four months after a similar attack in which six Jordanian policemen were murdered, and several weeks after the killing of three American security officers.

Ten people were killed in Sunday’s attacks at the hands of the extremist Islamists. Among the victims were seven police officers and a Canadian tourist, felled before security forces managed to kill the four terrorists in the suburbs of the southern city of Karak. The Canadian woman was killed while touring the ancient Crusader castle in the city, where she was caught in crossfire between the Jordanian police and the terrorists seeking to hide out there.

The Jordanian Army dispatched its elite antiterrorism force via helicopter. The troops managed to overcome both pairs of terrorists –those who had opened fire in the streets of Karak as well as those in the castle overlooking the beautiful city. In addition to the ten dead, nearly 40 others were wounded. Some 15 people, mainly tourists, were briefly taken hostage by the terrorists in the fortress. Rumors that Israelis were among the hostages were soon, thank G-d, proven false.

It was later reported that two other terrorist attacks were perpetrated soon after the Karak attacks – one in northern Jordan near the Syrian border, and the other all the way on the other side of the country, not far from Akaba (and Eilat).

So what is going on in Jordan?

It is probably the Arab country least affected by the violence and upheaval of the “Arab Spring.” At the same time, the tremendous influx of refugees into the kingdom has caused it serious damage, both economically and demographically.

All the elements that led to the civil unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and wherever else stability is at a premium are present in Jordan as well. Nevertheless, public criticism of the government remains relatively muted most of the time – for even the most embittered citizens well realize that the alternative is much worse than the status quo. No one in Jordan wants to find himself in a situation like that in neighboring Syria or Iraq, and they realize that if their protests get out of hand, and violence is directed against the regime, things could quickly deteriorate to exactly that.

It’s not that the citizens of Jordan don’t have what to criticize about their government. But they quickly ask themselves, “What exactly will I gain if I help bring about an internal revolution?” The outlet for their wrath then quickly becomes the media, especially social media. Angry street demonstrations are not often seen on the streets of Jordan – and especially not in northern Jordan, where the presence of most of the Syrian refugees is a constant reminder that this sorry situation could soon be the fate of many Jordanians as well if they fail to keep their opposition in check. They are well aware that their regime could easily be toppled – and then where would they run to? Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia? Would they seek out some rickety Mediterranean boat headed for Greece or Italy? None of these options appear very attractive to the average angry Jordanian, and so he stays relative quiet.

Still and all, violence does erupt from time to time. Nearly a full third of the populace is unemployed, and sometimes, when on the cusp of poverty, they simply cannot control themselves. In their most recent clash with police, six months ago in the town of Dhiban in southern Jordan, they set out with torches and signs demanding “Bread and Work.” It quickly turned violent, gunshots were exchanged, and both sides suffered casualties. Nearly 80 people were arrested, and the police declared the area a “closed zone,” thus preventing the unrest from spreading.

The events in Dhiban led the local media to step up the tone of its criticism of the government, demanding more popular say in the way things are run. Regime spokesmen explained that the country finds itself in a particularly difficult situation, given the instability throughout the region and especially in Syria.

But the opposition media presented evidence that there was much the government could do to alleviate its citizenry’s problems. They maintained that the government has insufficient representation for the lower classes, ignores the problems of the poor, fails to provide new jobs, and does little to block the influx of the refugees. The bottom line is that the media stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the protesters, if only in their empathy with the factors that led them out to the streets.

Jordan’s Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki, who took office less than a year ago, is working spiritedly to alleviate the unemployment. He has not yet seen great success, unsurprisingly, because of the tremendous objective problems his country faces. In addition to the 30 percent unemployment rate, economic growth stands at only 2 percent a year, the water supply continues to dwindle, and electricity is supplied only at certain times of the day. The budgetary deficit stands at a record low, and foreign investors hesitate to put their money in a country so close to volatile regions.

Jordan’s King Abdullah has come towards those who want to see change. He dissolved the Parliament, fired his previous prime minister, the ineffectual Abdullah Ensour, and installed in his place al-Mulki, well-known for getting things done.

And in fact, under the supervision of King Abdullah, al-Mulki began solving one problem after another. He held a Jordan-Israel-PA summit conference on the critical topic of water, especially the planned canal project between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Though not everyone in Israel is enamored with it, the Jordanians look forward to a project that will provide jobs for thousands of young men and increase the water supply to their homes. Keep in mind that 92 percent of Jordan is arid desert, and rainfall is sparse.

Guard of honor carry a picture of Lieutenant Colonel Saed Mayateh, during his funeral in the city of Karak, Jordan, Sunday. (Reuters/Muhammad Hamed)

The king and the prime minister have also looked outward, turning to none other than Russia for help. They first sought the aid of the Obama administration, but the answers they received from Washington made it clear that from the Americans would not come salvation. Abdullah then hopped on his plane to Moscow, met with President Putin, and the two agreed to forge closer national relations.

Jordan also waged long negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, finally receiving a very welcome and sizable loan. However, in return, it promised to cut its welfare budget and to raise taxes – neither of which was welcomed very happily among many Jordanians.

In addition to these economic problems, the Kingdom of Jordan is undergoing the difficulties of the influx of nearly three-quarters of a million refugees from the civil war in Syria – joining the same number of Iraqi refugees who arrived earlier. The effects of a million and a half foreigners are clearly and predictably difficult, in several spheres. The newcomers need work, and take lower wages for jobs filled by Jordanian citizens. This not only increases Jordanian joblessness, but lowers wages for those citizens who manage to keep their jobs. Crime rates have increased throughout the kingdom, and the government is left to provide the newcomers with medical services, housing and education.

Together with the Syrian civilians truly seeking asylum from life-threatening circumstances, many of the “refugees” are actually extremist Islamists. The latter seek out the native extremists, augmenting the terrorist threat – as we saw Sunday in Karak. It is very likely that the terrorists who murdered the ten people were activated by the Islamic State, which undoubtedly has an interest in sooner or later fomenting an overthrow in Jordan – one of the great fears of the Jordanian regime.

Jordan is a member of the anti-Assad coalition led by the United States. The alliance uses bases in Jordanian territory to launch aerial attacks in Syria and Iraq, and elite American forces frequently set out from Jordan on secret missions to the same countries. The fact that Amman is a member of the offensive force against IS is not welcomed by all Jordanians. Not at all a tiny minority of citizens feel that their country should sit on the fence and not provoke IS. Evidence that they might be right is Sunday’s attack in Karak.

Meanwhile, however, Jordan remains Jordan. It is located in a particularly strategic location, between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq – and not one of these countries is interested in seeing a regime change in Jordan. They all help out, each in its own way, to ensure that the Hashemite Kingdom endures.

Internal Jordanian intelligence is working overtime to reduce friction between the Islamic groups. For instance, the government closed all the Islamic Brotherhood centers from Amman and northward, after it received information – which proved to be true – that they were attempting to “radicalize” citizens.

Once in a while Jordan suffers a terrorist attack perpetrated by an IS-affiliated group. The authorities then rush to make arrests and extinguish the burning fuse before it explodes again. When it was learned that a terrorist attack against Jordan was being planned somewhere in Syria, King Abdullah did not hesitate to dispatch a military force into Syria itself, not far from the Golan Heights, to nip it in the bud.

Jordan’s security forces are convinced that ISIS has not only planted sleeper cells in the kingdom, but has also recently given them a “wake-up” call to begin carrying out attacks. It appears that Karak, and its ten victims, was one of these.

The Hashemite Kingdom has high hopes for the incoming Trump administration. Amman was quite disappointed by Obama’s approach to its problems, and King Abdullah sought to be among the first to meet with Donald Trump after his election. He presented his country’s sorry situation, and asked for an increase in American aid and support.

Israel, for its part, helps out Jordan in many ways, most of which cannot be publicized. One area that can be mentioned at present is the delivery of several dozen Israel Air Force helicopters, currently in Jordanian use along the borders with Syria and Iraq. Yerushalayim has also announced that it will increase its water supply to Jordan beyond the terms stipulated in their 1994 peace agreement. Israel already provides Jordan with some 50 million cubic meters a year, and will apparently double this amount in the coming years; Jordan is to return some of it from a desalination plant it is set to build near Aqaba.

In addition, Israel has replaced Syria as an important conduit for imports and exports to and from its eastern neighbor. Tens of international flights cross Israel’s air space each day laden with goods for and from Jordan. At the same time, after ships from Turkey and Greece dock in Israeli ports, their cargos are shipped directly to Jordan on hundreds of trucks traversing Israel from west to east.

Still and all, the Jordanians continue to attack Israel verbally from every stage, in everything having to do with the Palestinians. This takes place even as Jordan sings a different tune in the secret talks it and the PA wage with Israel. Jordan is well aware of the key role Israel plays in its ability to survive the current situation, particularly in light of the great Jordanian fear that IS will begin making its presence felt in the kingdom. A combined Israeli-Jordanian response against this danger, Jordan knows, is one of its best options.