Target: Jordan
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 August 2015)

A glance at a map explains why Jordanians look to the future with grim foreboding. Iraq and Syria are on Jordan's border and those two failed countries are where the Islamic State has spread like a plague, making every town it touches into a hell of murder and enslavement.

ISIL has said it will soon extend its Islamic caliphate into more Muslim countries. Jordan is the most obvious candidate. "They are coming for us" must be a chilling thought in Jordanian minds. Blessed with peace for years, Jordanians now contemplate the opposite of peace - not war but a mix of violence and chaos.

Led by King Abdullah II, the Jordanians signed on with the anti-ISIL coalition, which would give ISIL an extra reason for invading them, if it needed one.

Abdullah has taken a personal interest in fighting ISIL. "It is our war. It has been for a long time," he says. In February he visited the town of Karak, Jordan, to make a condolence call on the tribe of the 26-year-old Jordanian pilot who was burned to death by ISIL. Avenging the pilot, Abdullah's Royal Jordanian Air Force bombed 56 ISIL targets over three days.

He thinks the ISIL people are outlaws of Islam who have set up an "irresponsible caliphate to try to expand their dominion over Muslims." According to one report, his fierce response to ISIL made such an impression on Washington's foreign-policy planners that they discussed whether he might lead the Sunni Arab alliance and even contribute ground troops.

The very roots of ISIL involve Jordan. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian protégé of Osama bin Laden, founded the terrorist gang that evolved into ISIL. In 2005 Zarqawi was behind the triple suicide bombing of three hotels in Amman that killed 57 people. A targeted U.S. strike on the house he was using in Iraq killed him in 2006.

Support for fighting ISIL is a delicate question in Jordan. When joining the coalition was being considered, the hashtag #thisisnotourwar was popular on social media. A group of parliamentarians sent a letter to the king, claiming that there was no reason for Jordan to take part. Ultraconservative Sunnis and members of the Muslim Brotherhood were also opposed, perhaps because the Islamic State believes in the most extreme and comprehensive form of sharia law. The opponents of the coalition said it was part of yet another Western-led campaign against Islam. After ISIL burned the Jordanian pilot alive and posted a ghastly video of his death on the web, opinion moved toward support for the king. But revenge bombings can't keep feelings in line for long.

He is said to worry about public opinion, but not in the normal way of politicians. He's officially a constitutional monarch but he's more monarch than constitutional. There's an elected parliament but its purpose is to do pretty well what he says.

In this desperate time, Jordan has been co-operating with Israel, its longago enemy. Jordan fought against Israel in 1948 and in the Six Day War of 1967; in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, it played a minimal part, just enough to save face with other Arab states. An Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was concluded in 1994 and recently Israel gave Jordan 16 Cobra attack helicopters to maintain its borders -- which is a way of defending nearby Israel's borders too. The U.S., glad to have Jordan in the coalition, has increased its support for Jordan's army to about a billion dollars this year.

Nearby warfare has brought Jordan more intimate troubles. Its peaceful reputation attracts refugees. Jordan now has 1.3 million Syrians, including 140,000 children who have enrolled in schools that were already crowded. Caring for refugee families costs, according to the government, about $2.9 billion (U.S.) a year, only one-20th of it covered by the international community. The refugees include 200,000 Syrian labourers, whose willingness to accept unusually low wages has destabilized the labour market. The Jordan economy has for years been good, by Middle East standards, but the surrounding chaos of the failed states nearby has slowed growth, discouraged investment and increased the number of unemployed.

Jordan still depends on foreign aid, in good times and bad. The king has spoken about introducing democratic reforms and free markets, but so far that's not high on his agenda.

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