Eager to portray his country as a key ally of the West, King Abdullah was unapologetic about Jordan’s involvement in Syria and Iraq. “We stepped up big time. We are at the moment the only Arab country operating in Syria alongside the United States,” he said, adding that Jordan is also “the only Arab country operating alongside the Iraqis in Iraq alongside the coalition forces. As the Iraqis and the coalition increase their tempo for the next days of operations in Iraq, so will Jordan increase their tempo in support of Iraq. And, well—of course I cannot get into details, but there are other things on the table when it comes to eastern Syria.”
Jordan raised its level of involvement in the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State earlier this year after the extremist group murdered a Jordanian prisoner of war by burning him alive. The Jordanian public was furious and the king vowed revenge.
Now, the king’s rhetoric seems to suggest an even greater level of involvement. On April 15, Bassam al-Badareen, Amman bureau chief of the London-based Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, wrote that Jordan is about to launch a new security strategy labeled “Defense in Depth” that will include cross-border operations on Syrian and Iraqi territory. Three days earlier, the king had met with a group of parliamentarians to discuss domestic and regional affairs. According to Badareen’s account, he floated the Defense in Depth strategy. Badareen claims that the concept has been spoken of within Jordan’s political elite for some time, but he views the April 12 discussion as proof that King Abdullah has decided to move ahead with it.
Wars to the West, North, and East
Jordan’s borders are certainly in need of protection. To the west, Israel’s occupation of Palestine is a festering sore that has long undermined Jordanian stability. But even though the Palestine issue continues to loom large, recent years have brought new and more immediate problems.
To the east, the Islamic State seized most of western Iraq’s desert settlements in summer 2014. The al-Turaibil border post with Jordan was evacuated almost a year ago, and Jordan has moved troops there to reinforce border surveillance.
On the Syrian side to the north, large parts of the border have been in rebel hands. But the Nasib border crossing had remained under the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until it was suddenly captured by the rebels in early April. Among the victorious groups was the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front. Only after a brief and confused internal conflict did the jihadis withdraw, while Western-, Jordanian-, and Gulf-backed rebels issued a series of statements announcing their opposition to the Nusra Front.
Intensifying War in Southern Syria
According to several reports, the rebels moved in on the Nasib crossing after receiving a go-ahead from supportive nations—including Jordan, which hosts a multinational headquarters coordinating support for the insurgency in southern Syria. Meanwhile in northern Syria, a coalition of Islamist rebels captured the provincial capital of Idlib in late March.
Idlib was only the second provincial capital to fall during the four-year conflict, after the northeastern city of Raqqa. Now that rebels control the Nasib crossing, Daraa may become the third. The city is located very close to the Jordanian border, and it remains connected to Damascus only by a corridor of roads and rural towns.
Many have portrayed the rebel-led advances into Idlib and on the Jordanian border in the context of a Saudi-led attempt to ramp up pressure against Iran and its allies as Tehran nears a nuclear deal with the United States and other powers. The setbacks for Assad in Syria also coincide with a Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, and there is plenty of evidence of a more muscular Gulf Arab strategy—one that will affect Jordan too.
The Islamic State Is the Priority
For Jordan, the Syrian war is destabilizing in itself, but rapid shifts on the battlefield are especially fraught with risks. The country already houses hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, now estimated at one-fifth of Jordan’s total population. This places great strain on an already overburdened economy, is taxing social relations in the kingdom, and has contributed greatly to Jordan’s fears about security and national identity. To make matters worse, popular opinion is divided on the war.
The Jordanian authorities are now forced to expend considerable effort monitoring the movement of people and goods across the border, with some refugees, tribes, and local smugglers helping to ferry people, arms, and explosives. Even worse, jihadi groups like the Nusra Front—which has several Jordanians in its top leadership—are quietly exploiting recruitment for the Syrian conflict to establish themselves in Jordan.
The rise of the Islamic State to the east is just as worrying. While refugee flows from Iraq have so far been relatively limited, they could spiral out of control. The Islamic State seeks to infiltrate Jordan in many ways. Its most effective way of establishing itself is not by attacking across the border, but by co-opting Jordanian extremist factions and exploiting the simmering social discontent among Jordanian youth.
To counter these trends, the government has sought to exploit divisions between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, releasing some clerics aligned with the former group and allowing them a degree of media visibility. But these attempts to manipulate radical Salafi-jihadism could easily backfire.
King Abdullah now seems to indicate that his own priorities do not necessarily match those of Saudi Arabia and other traditional allies of Jordan, which focus on battling Iran and its proxies. In his April 12 parliamentary meeting, the king reportedly called for a political solution in Yemen and Syria even as he took a much firmer position on Iraq, supporting “the Iraqi government in its efforts to fight terrorism and terrorist gangs.”
In his Fox News interview too, King Abdullah lamented that Syria is “falling apart” and—echoing assessments by the CIA and other U.S. security officials—he made it clear that overthrowing Assad was not at the top of his list of things to do. “Technically there are two wars going on at the moment, one against the regime and one against ISIS or Daesh,” the king said, using two different acronyms for the Islamic State. “So which one is the priority? In my view, it’s ISIS, Daesh—they are the main problem.”
How Deep Is a Defense in Depth?
Jordan’s northern and eastern borders now exist only in so far as the Hashemite monarchy is able to police them. Foreseeing a long period of regional turmoil ahead, the King Abdullah seems to want to sensitize Jordanians to the idea that no one else is going to keep their borders safe and that meddling across the border will be the new normal.
As interpreted by Badareen in al-Quds al-Arabi, the resulting Defense in Depth strategy could include military operations “deep inside Iraq and Syria.” According to Badareen’s sources, the king also discussed the technicalities of establishing a “security belt to protect Jordan’s border with Syria and Iraq.” In a follow-up article published on April 19, Badareen added that such “security belts” could serve to house refugees on the other side of the border instead of in Jordan—and that this would require tacit cooperation with armed factions, including the Nusra Front in Syria.
The idea that Jordanian ground forces would themselves occupy parts of Syria or Iraq seems highly fanciful. However, an increased role in orchestrating rebel and clan coalitions to firm up border security seems quite likely—and the hard end of that strategy could include hit-and-run raids against hostile forces.
Still, there is no reason to jump to conclusions based on a few speeches and press articles. The Defense in Depth concept might simply be about reframing Jordan’s ongoing participation in the anti–Islamic State coalition as a type of forward-leaning self-defense, rather than mere antiterrorist operations. And the king could very well prefer to leave the exact meaning of the term undefined for now—because that helps keep his options open in a rapidly shifting environment.