It is almost a cliche by now: the inferno in Syria will eventually spread to its neighbours. It’s already happening for some of them. The car bomb that killed Wissam Hassan, the Lebanese intelligence chief, and the sharpening of tensions it produced, was the most recent, dramatic illustration of it. Turkey’s far-reaching support for the Syrian opposition has bred retaliation from President Assad in the form of renewed support for the PKK, the separatist Kurdish militants, who are on the warpath again. As for Iraq, it becomes ever clearer that the “Syrian crisis” – a full-scale civil war – and its own “crisis” – involving endemic tensions among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites that fall short of that but constantly seem to threaten it – are intimately bound up with each other.. But is a fourth neighbour, Jordan, going the same way? Perhaps the most artificial of the region’s western-created states, surrounded by much larger, stronger or richer ones, it was always peculiarly exposed to influences from beyond its borders. “Can Jordan survive?” was once a regular headline in western newspapers.
Yet, to begin with, Jordan weathered the upheaval that is the Arab spring with relative ease. The country, presided over by the Hashemite monarchy, was a typical Arab autocracy, with some of its typical flaws – not least corruption and cronyism – yet never in the same degenerate league as the republics, born of those “revolutions”, of which Syria’s was one of the worst. King Abdullah, like his father Hussein, retained some real legitimacy in his people’s eyes. True, the people took to the streets, but, unlike elsewhere, their rallying cry was never “the people want the downfall of the regime”; rather, they wanted its “reform”.
Nor does Jordan suffer from those sectarian antagonisms that have disfigured what, in Syria, began as a popular, peaceful movement for freedom and democracy. It has no Kurds; it is almost uniformly Sunni. Most of its people favour the Syrian rebels; but the regime itself has sought “neutral” ground between the two sides, fearing reprisals from one or the other if it didn’t. But events of the past two weeks show just how serious Jordan’s exposure to the drama next door could become. These include the first death of a Jordanian soldier along the Syrian-Jordanian border; clashes between the army and groups of jihadists seeking to cross it; and the unmasking of an alleged al-Qaida plot and the arrest of 11 men – all Jordanians – planning multiple bomb and mortar attacks on high-profile targets in Amman. The noted Jordanian columnist Urayb al-Rintawi recalled the 2005 bombings that killed 60 people in three Amman hotels. These were staged by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, from his base in Anbar – the western, exclusively Sunni province of Iraq – then a virtual fief of al-Qaida. For Jordan, Rintawi said, Syria now risked becoming “Anbar 2″– but an “Anbar” with only 100km of populated territory between it and Jordan’s capital, rather than 1,000km of empty desert away.
Disturbing, of course. Yet terrorism on its own never really works; it requires the “right” context to be effective. And, in the final analysis, it is on Jordan’s basic political, social and economic health that its ability to resist the Syrian contagion depends. And Jordan’s health is, in fact, looking increasingly poor. The relationship between ruler and ruled is deteriorating, as the latter intensify their pressures for reforms and the former persists in efforts to dilute or block them altogether.
On the constitutional front, King Abdullah has made what are seen as minor, cosmetic changes that do little to transfer ultimate authority from the palace to parliament and the people.
He also insists on preserving an electoral law that favours the Transjordanian segment of the population – the minority from which the monarchy traditionally derived its support – at the expense of the urban one. That penalises the numerically larger, better educated, economically more productive segment, the Palestinians. They have long considered themselves second-class citizens and, if things got bad, this faultline could be as dangerous as those sectarian and ethnic ones now playing havoc in neighbouring countries.
The law also disadvantages the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s most powerful political party, whose support is strongest in urban areas and especially among the Palestinians. It now seems headed for a major confrontation with the regime over parliamentary elections due at the end of the year. If, as threatened, it boycotts these, that will produce a parliament with no real legitimacy, making a mockery of Abdullah’s reformist pretensions.
Then there are the Salafis. Some of Jordan’s have gone to Syria to fight the heretic Alawite regime, now a prime target for Sunni jihadists everywhere. After at first seeming to turn a blind eye to this, Jordan is now seeking to prevent it, for it threatens to boomerang against itself. As the alleged al-Qaida plot shows, for some Jordanian Salafis jihad in Syria is merely a preparation before returning home to take on their own regime which – orthodox Sunni though it is – is impious on other grounds.
Whatever the outcome of the Syrian civil war, Jordan’s own reform-related troubles are now such that it might make little difference whether Assad survives or falls. For Abdullah both alternatives look bad. If Assad survives, with at least the perceived connivance of Jordan, that will increase the hostility of Jordan’s Islamist-led opposition towards the throne. If he falls, that will greatly strengthen them, because they will have the full support of the new order – doubtless heavily Islamist – that will emerge in Assad’s place. In either case the more stubbornly the king resists the clamour for meaningful reform, the more the opposition will be inclined to go the whole hog and raise the slogan: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
David Hirst, a former Middle East correspondent for the Guardian, was a reporter at the paper from 1963 to 1997.