x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Jordan frets over the Islamic State’s ever-growing threat

Abdullah Bani Ali looks at the reasons behind recent political changes in Amman.

A  view of  Amman.  Muhammad Hamed / Reuters
A view of Amman. Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Last week, King Abdullah II of Jordan directed the ministry of defence to take on the political, economic, legal and logistical functions of national defence. In a letter to Abdullah Ensour, Jordan’s prime minister, published by the country’s news agency (Petra), the king called on the government to transfer all non-military logistics, administrative, investment and development missions to the ministry, leaving the army free to “devote itself to its military and professional duties”.

Although the decision came in the context of “reform measures”, it should be viewed in the framework of recent developments in neighbouring countries and the new threats they pose to Jordan’s security.

While the Jordanian army has been spared the violence engulfing Syria and Iraq, it has come under tremendous pressure from the spillover of wars in these countries.

The army has had to manage the influx of more than 600,000 Syrian refugees and was recently called upon to destroy a military convoy that was attempting to cross the country’s Syrian border, raising fears it could be dragged into the conflict.

The surprising advances of the Islamic State in the northern regions of Iraq and eastern parts of Syria have ignited heated discussion among Jordanians about the group’s perceived threat to the country’s stability.

Jordanian politicians, leaders, analysts, commentators and public figures were seemingly preoccupied last week with just one question: will Jordan be the next target for the Islamic State forces?

The fear is not baseless. In June, the Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tikrit, just two and a half-hour’s drive north of Baghdad, conquering and humiliating the Iraqi army whose soldiers fled the battlefield.

By deploying psychological warfare techniques, Islamic State fighters also gained control of large swathes in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa in Eastern Syria, and the north of Iraq, only to be stopped by the United States’ limited air strikes on the borders of Kurdistan.

The terrorist group’s rapid advances and its presence on the Iraqi- Jordanian border has raised Amman’s stake in the conflict. What is worrying for Jordanians now is not only the mayhem that the Islamic State has already created in Iraq and Syria, but the group’s long-term strategy, which it has indicated includes the wider region.

Amman has every reason to fear the bleak scenario of an Islamic State incursion across its borders.

A major reason for concern is the kingdom’s economic situation, which could have an indirect negative effect on the country’s stability and its efforts to consolidate its internal front against the perilous phenomenon of the Islamic State.

The kingdom is noticeably grappling with some complex socio- economic challenges. Ordinary people are complaining about deteriorating living conditions. Poverty and unemployment are on the rise. The price of goods and services are soaring and the level of public debt is sky rocketing.

All these factors understandably create a fertile environment that breeds extremism or, at the very least, risks encouraging some youth – especially those who already feel marginalised or have a sense of alienation – to join the militant group or other extremist Islamic organisations in Iraq or Syria.

The official response to these fears and concerns was quick and came from the highest political authority in the country.

Well-known for his sophisticated political skills, and his abilities to predict what has yet to come, King Abdullah II of Jordan’s decision to reorganise the ministry of defence signalled he is taking these concerns seriously.

Although the move was a step in the right direction, it may not be sufficient to avert the threats and dangers imposed on the country by the region’s latest horrific realities.

The Islamic State was not born overnight. It has many parents, including Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, whose divisive policies played a major role in angering and alienating Arab Sunnis and creating the dire environment that has paved the way for the rise of the group.

As other commentators have noted, the Islamic State has emerged out of the desperate situation in which Sunnis feel marginalised, alienated and oppressed.

This feeling is becoming common in many Arab countries in the region, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

The Iraqi experience offers very important lessons for the decision makers in Jordan if they want to avert the growing threat of the Islamic State.

The Jordanian government has to adopt a balanced policy towards the crises in Syria and Iraq.

It needs a strategy that embraces the principles of neutrality and non-intervention, and reintegrates its roughly 10,000 Salafi-Jihadists citizens, who sympathise with Islamic extremist groups operating in these countries, engaging them in structured organisations within Jordanian society.

More importantly, Amman needs to devise a long-term development strategy that is based on transparency and social justice.

This strategy should address the socio-economic problems.

Finally, the Jordanian government will also have to attempt to address the economic grievances of its people in Ma’an, and other unemployment-stricken governorates in the southern parts of the country, offering them real opportunities. Doing so will help to stem the sources of anger and frustration that could boil over in certain sections of society.

Abdullah Bani Ali, from Jordan, is a doctoral student at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom