As civil war and an ISIL insurgency ravages Syria, the United States and Jordan –– two perennial allies –– are strengthening their strategic ties. Included in Washington’s annual military aid to the Hashemite Kingdom is an increased focus on maintaining border security between Syria and Jordan. With news of recent ISIL attacks targeting refugee encampments along this 160-mile divide, Jordan’s treatment of refugees and abandonment of human rights –– a neglected narrative in itself, hidden beneath U.S.-Jordanian efforts to combat extremism –– are receiving greater international attention.
This summer, a US-funded partnership between Jordan and Raytheon, an American defense contractor, is nearing completion. Known as the Jordan Border Security Project and supported by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the $100 million deal intends to fortify Jordan’s respective borders with Syria and Iraq, where militant extremist groups like ISIL and al-Qaida have infiltrated and taken up residence. By August, the Raytheon industry team is expected to fully transition operational control to the Jordanian Armed Forces. The Jordanian military will then be responsible for guarding the country’s borders, which the U.S. has outfitted with rapid response vehicles, watchtowers, ground radars, and more (1). By the end of 2017, the final $18.6 million phase of this deal should be complete. This phase will focus on securing Jordan’s northeastern border –– an area that has changed hands several times since the start of the Syrian Civil War five years ago. Although forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad once controlled this region, forces linked to al-Qaida and ISIL have, in recent years, assumed de facto control (1). U.S. cooperation with Jordan extends, however, beyond border control. In February 2015, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed, in which the United States promised up to $1 billion per year in economic and security assistance to the Hashemite Kingdom. The U.S. has historically prioritized its relationship with Jordan for its strategic value, as Jordan is perhaps the most active Arab participant in the anti-ISIL coalition, striking extremist targets in Syria and Iraq, and the country has often collaborated with the U.S. in the past (2). Close diplomatic relations between Jordan and the U.S. have facilitated coordination in these strikes (3).
Coordination, indeed, comes at a price. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a June attack on the border between Jordan and Syria that left 7 members of the Jordanian security forces dead and 13 others wounded (4). The car bomb was detonated near the Rukban refugee camp, which currently houses an estimated 60,000 displaced Syrians (5). In response to this latest deadly attack, the Jordanian government has completely sealed its borders with Syria –– a decision that relief agencies report has blocked the flow of food and water to the 60,000 refugees. Andrew Harper, the representative to Jordan for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), wrote to his followers on Twitter that with harsh weather conditions, including temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, “unfortunately, no water reached the site again (6).”
Critics of the Jordanian government have suggested that terror attacks targeting refugee populations, like this latest one, have become useful pretexts for stemming the flow of refugees. Jordanians and their American counterparts seem intent on securing Jordan’s northern and eastern borders, not just to mitigate the spread of violent extremism and the transfer of arms, but to complicate the ability of Syrian war exiles to seek refuge (7). Such a suggestion would not be the first time Jordan has come under criticism for violating human rights. Since 2006, the Jordanian government has used an “anti-terror” law to target and prosecute journalists and activists. This law significantly broadened the definition of “terrorism,” prohibiting “acts that expose the kingdom to risk of hostile acts, disturb its relations with a foreign state, or expose Jordanians to acts of retaliation against them or their money.” In 2015, Jordan was ranked 143rd out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. The Jordanian government has been particularly active in suppressing journalists and activists who have spoken out against the country’s treatment of its refugee population. Musab al-Shawabkeh, an investigative reporter with the news website “Amman Net,” is one example amongst many. After Shawabkeh criticized the government, claiming that Jordan’s interior minister suppressed information regarding instances in which Jordan forcibly returned Syrian refugees back to Syria, Jordanian officials recommended that Shawabkeh and three of his colleagues be tried in court for damaging Jordan’s image abroad (8). If the reason for U.S. intervention in the Middle East is to see democratic transformation occur, this transformation must begin with its allies. If American allies are not expected to honor human rights, then one should not expect peace and regional stability to ultimately prevail.
(1) Opall-Rome, Barbara. "Raytheon-Jordan Border Defense Against ISIS Enters Final Phase." Defense News. Sightline Media Group, 26 May 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(2) "U.S. Security Cooperation With Jordan." U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(3) Karadsheh, Jomana. "Jordan: 6 Killed in Attack on Syrian Border." CNN. Cable News Network, 21 June 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(4) Sweis, Rana F. "ISIS Is Said to Claim Responsibility for Attack at Jordan-Syria Border." The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 June 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(5) McCleary, Paul, and Adam Rawnsley. "Another Terror Attack in Jordan; U.S. Carriers Flexing Muscles." Foreign Policy. The FP Group, 21 June 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(6) Sweis, Rana F. "ISIS Is Said to Claim Responsibility for Attack at Jordan-Syria Border." The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 June 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(7) Arkin, William M. "The Great Wall of Jordan: How the US Wants to Keep the Islamic State Out." VICE News RSS. VICE Media, 24 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(8) Alami, Aida. "Jordan's 'Anti-Terror' Law Cracks Down on Journalists." Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera Media Network, 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 July 2016.
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