The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) takeover of the only Iraqi border crossing to Jordan has set off alarm bells that Israel’s neighbor could be the next to find itself engulfed in jihadist mayhem. However, Jordanian officials and experts are downplaying the chances of the Iraqi scenario repeating itself in their country.
The more likely threat, they say, comes from an internal terrorist insurgency, rather than ISIS overrunning its border.
David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former official dealing with the Middle East for the Pentagon, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that Jordanian officials were less concerned about the risk from ISIS on the country’s border with Iraq, as Jordan has enough firepower to prevent a replay of the northern Iraq scenario.
However, he believes that while the risk is not imminent, ISIS and other Sunni jihadist groups do have Jordan on their to-do list.
Schenker, who recently returned from a visit to Jordan, said that al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, al-Nusra Front, has far more local support, but that ISIS also has some appeal because people are upset with the image of Shi’ites slaughtering Sunnis throughout the region.
The more pressing threat to Jordan is that jihadist groups like ISIS would carry out terror attacks and assassinations within the country. Moreover, many Syrian refugees who have entered the country have not been properly vetted, he said.
On the street in Maan, he added, people are unhappy with the poor economic situation and the harsh government response to protests, in which some have been killed in recent weeks.
According to Schenker, Jordan is playing a dangerous game, trying to play Islamist groups against each other in an effort “to divide and conquer.”
He added that with the jihadi trend gaining momentum in the region, there “is a fine line between a Salafi and a Salafi terrorist.”
For example, Jordan released Salafi leader Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi – who has come out against ISIS but supports al-Qaida – from prison last week.
“We did not expect his release. We thought he would be interrogated and held further,” the leader of the Jordanian Jihadi Salafist Movement, Mohammad Shalabi (known as Abu Sayyaf), told Al Jazeera afterward.
Prof. Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA ) at Bar-Ilan University told the Post that “on paper the ISIS should be no match for the Jordanian army,” which holds military exercises with the US and Britain. Furthermore, Jordan’s King Abdullah is one of the few Arab leaders with extensive military experience.
However, Frisch raised two questions about the kingdom’s military effectiveness.
First, he noted, the Jordanian army has not fought an extensive campaign since the Black September civil war against the Palestinians (1970-71). Second, its army remains dependent on the Beduin, who “are not as blindly loyal as they used to be.”
“Nevertheless, I believe the army and air force would perform well in the open desert” against ISIS forces, he said.
However, he continued, the real worry is how extensive ISIS infiltration is in the big cities such as Amman, Zarqa and Irbid.
He added that “for the past three years, Jordan has implored the US to pressure Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to reduce their support of the jihadists in Syria and Iraq, but to little avail.”
And as negotiations between the US and Iran continue, he said, the Saudis are boosting their support for the jihadists in the proxy wars of Syria and Iraq in order to counter Iran.
Asked what powers could be expected to intervene on the Jordanian regime’s behalf in the hypothetical event that it found itself on the brink of collapse, Frisch said he found such a scenario unlikely, but might expect intervention from the US and perhaps Egypt, along with possible unclaimed Israeli air strikes.
Mudar Zahran, a London- based Jordanian-Palestinian political activist and the leader of the Jordanian Coalition of Opposition, told the Post that he believed the government was exaggerating the ISIS threat in order to gain sympathy from the US and Israel.
Zahran asked rhetorically why the king would allow 40 ISIS supporters to protest, but crack down hard on non-Islamist protests.
“Let’s not forget the US troops that are garrisoned in Jordan,” he said, pointing out that ISIS was not an existential threat to Jordan, but could cause the regime some trouble.
If the king’s hold on power were “not so fragile” and if his subjects were happier with his rule, there would be less support for jihadist groups such as ISIS, Zahran added.
Kamal Khoury, an activist and writer based in Amman, told the Post that ISIS had no real chance of affecting Jordan – not just on the military level, but also on the popular level.
“The Salafi jihad ideology has not spread enough in Jordan to cause the mayhem that is occurring in Iraq, nor to cause the regime to fall,” he said.