Syria Turmoil Threatens Jordanian Stability

Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan

Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan

By Ben Tannenbaum

Photograph of Zaatari Refugee camp courtesy of the Daily Mail

In the volatile Middle East, few problems remain truly local for long. Turmoil in Syria has spread well beyond that nation’s borders, destabilizing nearby countries such as Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. However Syria’s other neighbor, Jordan, has also faced serious ramifications from the continued conflict. The war has challenged Jordanian foreign policy, while the refugee crisis poses a serious threat to Jordan’s internal stability.

The Syrian War presents a foreign policy difficulty for the Hashemite Kingdom. Jordan reluctantly joined the American coalition to launch airstrikes against ISIS. In February, the execution of a captured Jordanian pilot briefly made the campaign popular among the population. However, Jordan’s military capabilities remain limited at best. The country’s air force has mainly focused on striking low risk (but less important) targets within Syria. The Jordanian army does have some tribal ties with combatants in Syria and Iraq, which have provided useful intelligence. However, Jordan’s key role against ISIS appears political, as America can point to the support of Sunni governments against extremists. Going forward, Jordan will likely not manage to expand its role in the campaign. Economic difficulties make a substantial military operation challenging for the impoverished nation. Secondly, large sectors of the Jordanian population maintain a degree of sympathy for ISIS. Excessive involvement in the Western coalition could unleash this pro-ISIS sentiment within Jordan. As a further complication, Syrian opposition groups (led by al-Qaeda offshoot the Nusra Front), recently seized an important border crossing into Jordan. Despite Jordan’s anti-Assad sympathies, the seizure of the border crossing threatens to spread extremism into Jordanian territory.

Domestically, the arrival of Syrian refugees has had a profound impact on Jordan. Jordan hosts a staggering number of refugees. According to the United Nations nearly 750,000 Syrians have crossed into Jordan, joined by 58,000 Iraqis. The combined total projects to reach one million by the end of this year. For a country of eight million citizens, this influx of refugees naturally creates a massive challenge, proportionally comparable to America accepting about 40 million displaced people. As a result, Jordan has the fifth highest net-migration rate in the world (ranking just below the British Virgin Islands, which would definitely be my preferred destination if given the choice). Some estimate that Jordan’s already strapped economy must obtain $3 Billion in foreign aid just to tend to the refugees. Understandably, the newcomers have struggled for acceptance from the Jordanian population. The refugees compete for jobs, housing, health services, and spots in schools with native Jordanians, all while driving up prices for most goods. The refugee crisis has strained Jordanian resources and created new schisms within society.

Unfortunately, Jordan already had enough problems before the Syrian spillover began. Economically, the nation lacks the natural resources and financial reserves of its Gulf neighbors. The country already stood divided between Palestinians and native Jordanians (who themselves have longstanding tribal fractures). Meanwhile, Jordan’s demographics present cause for concern going forward. Over 56% of the population is currently under 24 years old, and Jordan has the world’s 4th highest population growth rate. A rising youth population without economic opportunity presents potential for chaos. Factor in the growing spillover from Syria, and Jordan’s hopes for stability in the long term appear quite slim.

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