Guests of the kingdom: How long can Jordan's veneer of tranquility last?

Five years after the Syrian conflict began, more than a million Syrians are still living in Jordan with little hope of returning home.

The Golan Heights and Lake Kinneret are seen from Umm Qais in Jordan (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
The Golan Heights and Lake Kinneret are seen from Umm Qais in Jordan
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
From the heights of Umm Qais in Jordan, the land falls away in three directions. Standing above the ancient Roman amphitheater, one can see the West Bank and Israel to the west, Lake Kinneret and the Golan Heights to the north, and Jordan to the east – and far in the distance somewhere, Syria.
It was on this auspicious site in 1920 that King Faisal met with Arab notables from the region to protest the division of Bilad al-Sham, or greater Syria, into a series of colonially administered states.
They wanted to continue the legacy of the Great Arab Revolt, of T.E. Lawrence fame, and create an independent Arab state.
In 1920, the First World War had been over for two years. The British and French, conquerors of the Ottoman Empire, were dividing up the region between themselves based on borders they had agreed to in 1916 under an agreement by British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot.
Syria would go to the French, while the British would take what came to be Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.
Already, the French were marshaling forces to take Damascus from Faisal, who had been proclaimed king. States were in flux. Faisal was unlucky. Despite the allegiance he commanded among the men that met here in Jordan, he was defeated in Damascus. His brother Abdullah was luckier. In 1921 he became emir of Transjordan, and in 1946 king of this small desert state.
In those days the population of Jordan was a mere 300,000. Abdullah watched as half his emirate was made into the Mandate of Palestine, which Britain promised to make a Jewish state.
In 1948 hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs poured across the Jordan River to refugee camps, and the kingdom became a center of Palestinian politics.
In 1949, Abdullah was assassinated while on a visit to Jerusalem, accused of betraying the Palestinian cause.
The memory of the Great Arab Revolt still reverberates in Jordan today. The flag of the revolt, with its red triangle and black, green and white bars, can be seen on murals throughout the country.
Jordanians today speak with pride about their small country’s historic role in the region, balancing between the forces of Arab nationalism and Islamism, and between the conflicts that have swept over their neighbors in Israel, Syria and Iraq.
In the last decades Jordan has found itself on the unenviable doorstep of the chaos and conflict in Iraq and Syria. In many ways it is the last remnant of the Arab Revolt that is still a stable country.
But with conflict all around it, how long will that stability remain? WHEN THE Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011, thousands of Syrians began crossing the border into the kingdom.
Jordan had a long history of welcoming refugees. It has around 2 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, of whom some 370,000 live in 10 refugee camps. After the US invasion of Iraq and the sectarian violence there, many Iraqis fled. According to a 2007 UNHCR report, there were 750,000 Iraq refugees in Jordan.
When Syrians began fleeing to Jordan, most thought they would go back within a few months. But these months turned to years, and instead of going back, more kept coming. Zaatari refugee camp opened in 2012 to accommodate the poorer refugees. Those with more means rented apartments in cities in the north, such as Irbid and Jerash and the capital, Amman. By March 2013, at its height, Zaatari held 156,000 people – the largest in Jordan and the fourth largest refugee camp in the world. Still, this was only a fraction of the estimated 1.4 million Syrians living in Jordan, of whom 647,000 are registered with the UNHCR as refugees.
Irbid is a bustling university town but has grown 30 percent due to the influx of Syrians, whose presence is not immediately obvious. But there are many new developments around the city, many apartments inhabited by the newcomers.
There are beggars, and many of the lower-level jobs, such as waiters, appear to be held by Syrians.
The war has left many scars here.
Rockets and shells from across the border have frequently landed on Jordanian territory. The rebels in Deraa have a cease-fire with the regime at the moment, but before the cease-fire, they were being bombed by the Russians.
Other factions on the other side of the border include the Nusra Front and Islamic State. Support for the rebel groups that comes from the Gulf States has been funneled through Jordan at times during this conflict. In hushed tones people speak about the foreign fighters who have joined the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. In many ways Jordan is a frontline state now in this conflict.
With Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah playing a key role in defending Assad’s regime, there is fear in Jordan that these Shi’a forces could lead to destabilization. There is also fear of extremist Sunni groups such as Islamic State setting up shop in the kingdom. In Irbid there was an 11-hour gun battle with Islamic State extremists on March 1. In April Jordan closed the Amman branch of the Muslim Brotherhood office.
JORDANIANS ARE worried about the future. They see a balkanized society made up of Jordanians with roots in Jordan, “Jordanian Jordanians” and Jordanians with roots in pre-1948 Palestine.
For Jordanian Jordanians the fear is that with each new refugee crisis, the kingdom comes to host more and more peoples from the Arab world. “In five to 10 years we could be like Lebanon,” said one local man, referring to the balkanized society Lebanon has.
Jordan has been through this before.
In September 1970 King Hussein ordered the army to crack down on Palestinian guerrillas who were operating openly in Jordan. After a spate of hijackings and raids on Israel, the king felt the Palestinians were aiming to overthrow him.
In brutal fighting that saw thousands killed, the Jordanian army crushed the Palestinian armed factions. In the midst of it all, Syria sent an armored column toward the border and threatened to intervene. The tensions between Palestinian- Jordanians and Jordanians still reverberates today. In late April, when Amman’s Al-Faisaly soccer team lost to the Palestinian-supported Al-Wehdat club, the Faisaly fans began mocking the Palestinians by chanting about Israel.
Driving from Irbid to the border town of Ar Ramtha, we saw no signs of war or masses of refugees. Ar Ramtha, unlike so many border towns, seems wealthy from the outside. Palatial mansions, with ornate gates, some with fauxgold linings, line the streets. In town there is a very light security presence.
An old border crossing with Syria has been abandoned and a new border post placed closer to Syria. On the hills in the distance is Syria. Deraa, Syria, is only 20 kilometers from here.
Deraa is sometimes known as the “cradle of the Syrian revolution.” Protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain started in January 2011, ushering in the Arab Spring; it was in early March that people began rising up in Deraa. On March 20, the Ba’ath Party headquarters were burned. Five days later, more than 100,000 took to the streets. So it was very much here, at the border, that the rebellion began.
Five years later the consensus among refugees is that the high hopes of those days have turned to bitterness. At a small wheat factory overlooking Ar Ramtha, we found two of the refugees that once formed part of thousands who lived here.
“They moved them all to Zaatari recently,” says Hassan, a lanky man, his hair speckled with wood chips from the day’s work.
He agreed to sit and discuss his life.
Like many Syrians, he works long hours, up to 17 hours a day, he said, and receives around 200 Jordanian dinars a month.
It appears to be a shadow economy. His boss works in the Jordanian security forces and runs the factory part time.
“In 2011 we heard on the TV that they [the rebels] could overthrow the regime.
They lied to us. Everyone lies to us. The regime and everyone. Not just America but the world failed us. We didn’t think this situation will continue so long,” says Hassan.
Along with his friend Jihad, who also works at the factory, they say they would like to go back to Syria if they could. “We would sleep under the stars in a field, if that was an option. Most Syrians think that way.”
But the men are forlorn. “Syria is finished,” says Hassan. Both the men say they wish they could relocate their families to the United States.
IN THIS part of Jordan many of the families and large tribal-based clans have relatives on both sides of the border.
Tribes such as Zoabi have contingents on both sides.
A portly off-duty Jordanian soldier says that there have been 10,000 Syrian- Jordanian marriages here. People would drive to Deraa to buy sugar because it was closer than Idlib. Meat was imported from Damascus. Now, he says, the trade has declined to near zero. Meat prices have quadrupled. Weddings, which once featured elaborate dishes of lamb, yogurt and rice, now simply serve kanafeh for dessert.
But there is some dispute about the origins of the wealth of the palatial mansions. “The money comes from smuggling,” one man told us.
Many of the people fear the war will return and the shelling and rockets will threaten the town. They don’t have bomb shelters. “We pray to Mecca for security.”
Driving back toward Irbid, night has fallen. Men gather at the local mosque, its neon green light from the minaret piercing the darkness. In a wadi, a local electricity transmitter hums. Halfway to Irbid we pull off into a suburb called Bushra. Most of the houses are dark.
A Palestinian boy gives us directions.
Asked what he thinks of the local tribal family, he curses.
A Jordanian family in the village sketches out some of the challenges they face. They don’t get along with the Palestinians here, they say. When there is bombing in Syria, the walls and windows shake. One of the sons, named Nidal, has gone to study in Bahrain. “I’d like to join the army there and fight the Shi’a,” he says. For him the threat of Iran, not only in Syria but across the region, must be confronted.
ONE OF the institutions most impacted by the refugee crises has been local hospitals. In July 2013 The Jordan Times estimated that 10 to 13 babies were being born each day just in Zaatari camp. By March 2016 the camp had delivered its 5,000th child. That is only a portion of the picture, because the camp itself does not have the resources to deal with all the births or health issues facing Syrians.
Of the 250 patients a month the Islamic Hospital in Irbid treats, at least one third are Syrians. The nurses and doctors say they treat the Syrians like family. The hospital has received support from Qatar and other NGOs to subsidize the medical costs for the refugees and has opened up a center for dialysis on the basement floor. Originally a hospital dedicated mostly to obstetrics, it is now growing, thanks to the Syrian refugees. However, according to Dr. Abd al-Rauf Hazeymeh, many of the specialized medications that their Syrian patients need access to aren’t covered. “Medication can cost a lot, and Syrians have to pay for it themselves often.”
Down in the dialysis treatment room, one of the men says he comes here two or three times a week from Zaatari. He was a truck driver back in Syria, but after 2011 he fled here. The help from UNHCR and NGOs covers his dialysis, but he can’t afford the $13,000 for a transplant, despite having a donor.
He’s diplomatic about the living situation in Zaatari. “It’s acceptable,” he says. Internal transportation is lacking, and he adds that he has to walk three kilometers on crutches to get to the entrance for his shuttle to the hospital. He receives 140 dinars a month in food coupons, prices in the camp for foodstuffs are 50% cheaper than in outside supermarkets, but sometimes it’s necessary to shop in the city.
“We want the world to know what happened to us and our needs,” says the man.
THE ROAD to Mafraq – where the Zaatari camp is located – from Irbid is dusty and desolate. There are some new factories along the way, some of which are Syrian companies that relocated here.
Near the campus of the Jordan University of Science and Technology is a solar farm being constructed by Martifer Solar.
The 57 MW plant looks incongruous amid the small desert villages. On the way to Mafraq are signs for Iraq; the border is a five-hour drive to the east.
It was in Mafraq that Capt. Frederick Leake led a unit of Gurkhas and Egyptians in September 1917 to help cut a rail line from Damascus during the First World War. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt’s Beduin army was also near here.
Now this town of 58,000 once again finds itself on the front line.
The population of Mafraq governorate has doubled since the start of the Syrian war, almost entirely due to an influx of Syrians. The governorate has a 300-km.
border with Syria. Some reports claim that 88% of the population is now made up of Syrians. This has caused tensions in the town, and the Jordanian government has sought to increase its patrols not only of the border but of the massive Zaatari camp itself.
This is a heavily militarized area, home to many of the units of Jordan’s army and air force. Large billboards at the entrances to the numerous military camps show King Abdullah II of Jordan smiling, often in uniform, and sometimes with his family. It is a reminder that Queen Rania has done outspoken humanitarian work for refugees. In an article for The Washington Post on May 5, she described meeting Syrians in Lesbos, Greece. “Because if the world listened to the stories – in Greece, Lebanon, Jordan (the kingdom estimates that there are 1.3 million Syrians now living there) and beyond – more people would feel compelled to act. And small acts of kindness would give way to bigger and bolder ones – which would give way to humane policies to help refugees,” she wrote.
The king has struck a more resolute stance. In February 2015 he appeared in uniform and promised a “relentless” war against Islamic State after the group burned Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh alive. “We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles, and our war for their sake will be relentless and will hit them in their own ground,” he declared.
In Mafraq, things seem calm. At the local UNHCR office, Syrian refugees line up outside to make various requests.
There is a lone security officer to keep them in line. The former apartment building the UNHCR has rented now has three separate security barriers – a wall, concrete blocks and a durable, plastic, blue fence. Around the back there is a small discreet entrance for staff, and a metal detector. A burly guard bearing a logo for “Shark Security” keeps watch.
GAVIN WHITE, the external relations officer for Zaatari camp, has a busy schedule. Previously with UNDP and then UNRWA in Jerusalem, he’s an expert on the multi-armed octopus of UN organizations and the bureaucracy and fickle ways of the international community.
He met with the Magazine at the UNHCR Mafraq offices for an interview. The Jordanian government had denied access to the Magazine to tour the camp.
In his view the worst has passed in terms of the Syrian refugee crisis, and now the time has come to manage the facts on the ground.
“If you go back to March of 2015, the high point of displacement, there were 2,500 to 3,000 crossing a day into Jordan.”
Most of them were from Deraa governorate, and they assumed they might stay in Jordan for a few months and go back.
The Zaatari camp is not a static camp population. White says that in the beginning some wealthier Syrians refused to move to the camp and rented apartments.
Over time they became drained of resources and moved to the camp.
Although Jordanian security controls access to the camp, Syrians are able to register and then apply to leave relatively easily. In recent months, White says, there has been an increase of Syrians selling property back home in despair and looking to move abroad permanently.
However, he adds that when staff are identifying families in Zaatari for resettlement to the US or Canada, one in four families actually rejects going.
“Often these families still have direct family members in [Syria],” White says. To travel to the West would sever whatever chord they still maintain to their home country. “Syrians, more than any other displaced populations...want to go back.”
But for the time being they are living in prefab durable shelters in Zaatari camp. They are luckier than the first refugees who came here and were put up in tents. Now the UNHCR has close partnerships with donor countries and an eye on more permanent structures.
“In terms of the actual infrastructure, to focus on Zaatari specifically, you are moving away from literally trucking around water to every household in the camp.... There’s an aquifer in Zaatari camp, now you’re going toward a pipe system, really heavy infrastructure.
Same for sewage,” White says. “If you look at food, [we are] no longer physically distributing food directly.” There are two Jordanian supermarkets in the camp, White explains, and households are given monthly debit cards with an allowance of 20 JD per family member.
The same model is being applied for gas canisters in the winter. Families are able to buy what they need and not rely on handouts.
This evolution is in part due to the changing nature of the camp, moving from the emergency response in the first few months of the crisis to a more sustainable model over the years, but also by virtue of Syrians themselves.
“A Syrian has the same expectation of someone living in the US, Israel or the UK – for example, access to electricity is a prerequisite,” White says. The development of the camp has therefore been a give-and-take between what Syrians expect and what the humanitarian agencies can provide. In the early days of the camp, electricity powered security infrastructure but was quickly siphoned off by the refugees, an example of the Syrians’ entrepreneurial nature.
Syria was a developed country before the war. That means that to serve the refugees, they require job training and opportunities. They read on Facebook what other Syrians are doing and how they are coping. It is why, for instance, many saw half a million Syrians going to Europe last year and considered it as an option.”
But the donor countries propping up the UNHCR effort are suffering from fatigue, says White. “So in the beginning you’ll have a good deal of sympathy and solidarity, and there are these big financial commitments that come. But, I guess, in the beginning they are given in the sense that this is only an immediate, temporary need, and we’re responding to that need. But once you get passed two years, three years and into four years, perhaps – quite rightly on the one side – donors would say, ‘Well it’s not sustainable for us to keep giving the same level of resources,’ ‘refugees need to integrate,’ ‘they need to go back to Syria and deal with the situation as it is,’ which is a cold, harsh way of looking at it. But in the end it comes down to financial resources.
“We were quite clear to say if you don’t maintain this sort of social-welfare, social safety net provided by the camp, provided in general in terms of access to Jordanian utilities and services in Mafraq, then there will be a consequence.
We’re not predicting what that consequence will be, but there certainly will be one.”
The unstated code here is that lack of donor support can mean instability in Jordan. This is the same narrative Jordanians have when they say they are angry the West has not found a solution and is not supporting the kingdom enough. They see the Syrian influx, wages decreasing, greater competition for jobs and resources, and they see a bleak future.
White agrees that the refugee crisis has deeply strained the healthcare system and the Jordanian economy, and that the international community must have a larger role in investing in education and skills programs for refugees.
“Beyond the infrastructure, it is about investing in the Jordanian economy.
When the aid was cut last year, the idea was that Syrians should work like Jordanians.
But there is high unemployment, and there is informal labor that fills the needs of what was migrant labor,” says White.
Aid workers face other issues. There is fear that the Syrians coming of age here will form a “lost generation.” There are those whose studies were interrupted when the fighting broke out, and couldn’t continue elsewhere. Now there are the children who were either born in the camp or come of age there; 20% of Zaatari camp is under the age of five and 57% under 18.
White says an investment in building more schools and hospitals in Jordan, investing in scholarships and vocational training will prepare Syrians so that – when the time comes to go back to their country – they will have the tools to rebuild it.
“The bottom line there is, yes, people are focused on the political solution in Syria – which is correct that they should be doing so – but inevitably, what will lead to the ultimate stability and recovery in Syria will be the Syrians who are investing in the reconstruction of their country, and a huge part of that workforce will come from the refugee population,” White says.
“So if those refugees are just allowed to sit idle,” he continues, “not investing in their capacities, what are your expectations for reconstruction when they return?” ONE BRIGHT spot is the role of the United States in funding the humanitarian mission. “The US across the board is by far the [major funder] of UNHCR and any other UN agency or NGO, way, way above – it’s over $1 billion in financing. Without the US, there really is no humanitarian operation at all,” says White. But finance is only a part of the puzzle. The US has agreed to resettle 30,000 Syrians, and 14,000 from Jordan have already left or are in the process of navigating the administrative track. Others are moving to Canada, the second-largest recipient.
White criticizes UN member nations of not sharing the responsibility of resettlement, and the potential problems of Germany’s open-door policy to the nearly 1 million refugees it informally accepted over the past year.
Instead of operating a formal resettlement, with applications from countries such as Turkey and Jordan, Europe is taking in refugees in an informal, chaotic manner. “Ten percent of Syrian refugees should be resettled to third countries – that is our position, but we are way below that number. There is no burden-sharing in international responsibility.
Many member states are not pulling their weight, as you saw in the redistribution plan for Europe. Germany was saying it takes a million, but then it was saying it wanted an equitable redistribution,” says White.
In April, Irish rock star and humanitarian activist Bono penned an op-ed in The New York Times calling for a “new Marshall Plan,” with a three-pronged approach in addressing refugee crises in Africa and the Middle East. First, to commit to supporting humanitarian aid; second, to not let refugees sit idle but actively engage them as leaders in their communities; third, to identify and invest in the most important stabilizing mechanisms in countries “on the periphery of chaos.”
“It is less expensive to invest in stability than to confront instability,” Bono wrote.
ON THE drive back to Irbid from Mafraq, there is a hillock festooned with small shrubs. Between two clumps of greenery is a monument to Jordanian soldiers who have died in the country’s wars. Two large UK-built Centurion tanks stand guard over the installation.
Both of them face toward Syria. On one of them, a visitor helps boost his son up to play on the metal behemoth.
The kingdom is secure. But how long can this veneer of tranquility last? Awad Hajara, a local tour guide, says he thinks the Syrian people are facing a tough future.
Assad may have been a dictator, he says, but there is a saying in this region: “If you take away a bad person, a worse person will come.”