Analysis: Jordan’s image as a stable oasis takes a hit after Karak attack

Last month, three US military trainers were shot dead at a southern Jordanian base.

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December 20, 2016 00:11
4 minute read.
An honor guard marches at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan

An honor guard marches at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Jordan’s King Abdullah visited King Hussein Medical Center in Amman on Sunday to check on the condition of security forces and civilians injured in the attack in southern Jordan that killed seven officers, two Jordanian civilians and one tourist from Canada.

Another casualty of the attack, the bloodiest and most audacious in recent years, is Jordan’s self-image as an oasis of stability amid the turmoil swirling around it, notably the civil wars and devastation in Iraq and Syria.

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The attack, in addition to its human toll, is threatening at many levels. It reached its bloody conclusion at Karak castle, a popular tourist site that became the venue for an hours-long standoff between Jordanian security forces and the gunmen. This is a powerful symbolic blow to Jordan, and the fallout for the kingdom’s already faltering tourism industry will be substantial.

Another cause for concern is the geographical scope of the attack. It started when gunmen opened fire on police in Qatraneh, nearly thirty kilometers north of Karak. Gunmen then drove to Karak and went on a shooting spree aimed at officers patrolling the town before holing up in the castle. This means that not only were the security forces unable to detect plans for the attack, they were unable to prevent it from spreading.

“There is a lapse in the field security here,” said Daoud Kuttab, a columnist for the Jordan Times. “But the public is extremely supportive of the regime and that shows how isolated are the individuals who carry out these acts.”

Still, it must be cause for concern for authorities that the attack took place in an area of Jordan that has traditionally been a bastion of support for the Hashemite monarchy.

“If this was an Islamic State attack, it shows that there are holes in the intelligence system since they managed to penetrate the stronghold of the regime,” said Oded Eran, former ambassador to Jordan and a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.



A not insignificant number – estimates range from hundreds to 2,000 – of Jordanians have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with Islamic State and other radical Sunni groups, and a spate of attacks over the last nine months indicates that there is a spillover of radicalism into Jordan as well as homegrown extremism.

Last month, three US military trainers were shot dead at a southern Jordanian base.

According to Reuters, they were shot when their car failed to stop at the base’s gate by a Jordanian soldier in an incident in which Washington did not rule out political motives.

On June 21, an ISIS attack killed seven Jordanian soldiers at a Syrian-Jordanian border checkpoint. Two weeks earlier, an attack on a Jordanian intelligence post in Baqa refugee camp killed five members of the security forces. In March, seven members of a jihadist cell in the northern town of Irbid were killed in a clash that left one soldier dead.

Still, the violence, while worrying, is not seen by Israeli analysts interviewed by The Jerusalem Post as threatening the monarchy. “There is nothing in these attacks to suggest that the fundamental stability of the regime is in danger or that there is a serious deterioration of the legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of the population,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a specialist on Arab politics at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center.

“The monarchy at this point is sufficiently rooted in the society as a symbol of Jordanian identity and has made sure to cultivate the loyalties of key sectors of society. There are often rumblings in those sectors but fundamentally the key sectors that make up the elite – civilian and military – view the monarchy as a bulwark against radicalism and chaos that they see breaking out all around them,” he added.

Eran put it this way: “The regime is stable because when you are in Jordan, when you watch television and see the atrocities in Aleppo you think twice, three times, four times before you want to get into that situation. The population is close to the destruction in Iraq and Syria and doesn’t want to rock the boat.”

Moreover, there is no organized opposition beyond parliament, which the regime monitors, Eran said. “There isn’t any leader or any contender with charisma to attract support. The regime doesn’t face any movement that captures the imagination of people.”

Eran contrasts the situation in Jordan with that of Egypt, where Islamic State has a territorial foothold in Sinai.

“There is nothing like that in Jordan, there is no danger to the regime. Even if tomorrow morning something happens to the monarch, there will be change but there will be no power or any force that takes over from the current regime.”

Still, King Abdullah is on the hot seat with no easy solutions for important issues. Youth unemployment is soaring at about 30% and poverty is widespread. The 630,000 registered Syrian refugees and a similar number of unregistered ones strain the economy and take jobs from Jordanian citizens.

The government prides itself on having been able to hold parliamentary elections in September but turnout was low and the legislature lacks legitimacy and power. Sunday’s attack adds to the sense that the former oasis is increasingly becoming a deeply troubled country.

Within this setting, Israel should maintain the close security cooperation with Jordan and help Amman grapple with its Syrian refugees, says Maddy-Weitzman. “We should be extending humanitarian aid, assistance without a footprint, to help with the refugees, whatever Jordan thinks would be helpful, be it medical supplies [or] vital humanitarian aid.”

At the same time, Maddy- Weitzman advocates “being extremely sensitive to Jordanian concerns on Jerusalem, the holy sites and the peace process and taking a more proactive approach on the Palestinian issue.”

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