Seminar| Jordan’s Responses to the Syrian Civil War and Israeli-Palestinian Violence

OxGAPS hosted a seminar delivered by Dr. Imad El-Anis, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Nottingham Trent University, entitled “Jordan’s Responses to the Syrian Civil War and Israeli-Palestinian Violence”. The lecture took place in the Deakin Room at St Antony’s College and was chaired by Dr. Toby Matthiesen. El-Anis started by setting out the definition of small state—traditionally understood as a measure of population, resources, material and military capabilities. He questioned how useful the definition could be in terms of understanding a nation’s foreign relations or political economy for instance and suggested that in some areas, Jordan was spurred on by its small size rather than hindered by it.

Since King Abdullah II came to power in 1999, Jordan has paradoxically seen a rise in its material capacities and capabilities—evidenced by increasing military power and a rapidly expanding economy—but at the same time its ability to influence external events in the region has declined. For example, during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis, King Hussein was able to act assertively, taking a stand against Western intervention and making his voice heard. However, fast-forwarding to 2002-2003 in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, King Abdullah was unable to make any significant impact among the US or European political elite.

El-Anis then proceeded to lay out his explanation for this paradoxical situation, first noting the importance of the leadership change in 1999 after King Abdullah took over from his father, perhaps a more astute political figure, before going on to emphasise the structural changes in the region which have restricted Jordan’s agency. Energy security has been one of the crucial changes; under Saddam Hussein, Iraq provided 90% of Jordan’s oil needs virtually for free, however, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that has ended and left Jordan scrambling to find new sources. More than that though, with the new Shia-led government in Iraq, the country has actively swung itself away from Jordan and towards Iran—one example being the shift from using Aqaba as the primary entry point for overseas goods coming into Iraq to using more Iranian ports instead. The importance of these changes is reflected in King Abdullah’s persistent rhetoric warning of the emergence of a Shia Crescent across Iran, Iraq, Syria and parts of Lebanon and how this threatens Jordan.

King Abdullah has also led an economic liberalisation of Jordan and has sought to deepen the country’s connections and integration into international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation. Both of these measures have meant Jordan is much more sensitive, vulnerable even, to global changes. This has been exacerbated since the start of the 2011 Syrian civil war with an even greater number of external powers entering into the region and Jordan having to balance competing demands and interests. The Arab Spring has also brought about a number of direct challenges to Jordan, most noticeably through the refugee crisis but also through a questioning of legitimacy. Daesh’s destruction of the arbitrary borders between Syria and Iraq, dating back to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, has raised questions over the legitimacy of states founded on colonial imaginations of what territories should form a specific state such as Jordan. This helps to explain King Abdullah’s decision to raise the Hashemite flag on Jordan’s national Army Day as a public statement of the Hashemite dynasty’s great heritage stretching back 500 years as well as the family’s Islamic roots.

El-Anis then proceeded to outline Jordan’s responses to the situation, emphasising again its limited nature. Jordan has had a very limited military involvement in Syria and reportedly supports Sunni tribes in southern Syria—marking a new, albeit small, external intervention for the country. It’s more significant role has been to legitimise Western involvement in Syria though even this decision has come about mostly through US pressure—an example of small state “bandwagoning” onto larger state interests. Ensuring regime security, providing support for UN peacekeeping missions and training regional counter-terrorist and police forces have characterised Jordan’s past 20 years.

El-Anis also touched on the issue of Jordan’s sensitivity to tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, and how this adversely effects the country given its large population of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. He emphasized that the government of Jordan, to a large extent, blames Iran for being a destabilizing actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. El-Anis concluded his lecture by considering the impact of the refugee crisis. Although there are said to be 1.4 million refugees in Jordan, many were actually born in Jordan and are self-sufficient. A more reasonable number in need of Jordanian aid would be around 680,000. The broad consequences of the refugee crisis have been increased financial demands on the Jordanian budget for healthcare, education and infrastructure, and has created a macroeconomic imbalance with demand outstripping supply—fueling inflation in areas such as land, food and water prices. The Jordanian response has been to try and insulate itself off from external influences given its inability to enact real change outside its own borders. Furthermore, it has set up a response platform to try and deal with the domestic challenges which was an indication that Jordan considered the challenges to be long-term—perhaps even extending beyond the immediate impact of the Syrian civil war.