Visiting Jordan, a strong sense of fear is palpable on the streets – among working people, intellectuals and the political elite there is growing chatter about an escalation of military activity along the southern front, the Jordan-Syrian (the shield) border, writes Abdelbari Atwan.
Combatants will likely be trained on Jordanian territory and then cross the border to fight the regime with sophisticated weapons provided by the West and the Gulf countries.
The United States feel they have been duped by their Russian rival via the Geneva Process which succeeded only in legitimizing the Syrian regime and re-establishing its membership of the international community. In exchange, the regime conceded nothing to the opposition and emerged from the whole adventure like a winner rather than a pariah.
The primary goal of the Geneva Process was to enable a peaceful transition of full power to an interim government but the regime, backed by its steely Russian ally, succeeded instead in focussing all attention on terrorism.
Somewhat embarrassed, Washington has now revived the military option in a bid to pressure both the regime and Russia. The next battle is likely to be for Damascus itself, as the regime has made progress in re-taking Homs, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor.
In Jordan the subject of most evening conversations in homes and cafes is arming the opposition with sophisticated modern weapons, including ManPads (shoulder-held anti-aircraft missile launchers), and the establishment of no-fly zones inside Syria.
The vast majority of Jordanians I spoke to, from taxi drivers to former Government Ministers and including many intellectuals, politicians, military analysts, experts etc believe that Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s three-hour meeting with President Barack Obama at a farm in California earlier this month, was dedicated to planning an intervention in Syria.
Jordan is host to the so-called “Shield,” anti-missile defence system on the border with Syria, and is an ideal base for training and arming fighters and allowing them passage in both directions. In exchange, Jordan can expect billions of dollars in loans and other financial incentives.
I have visited Jordan four times during the three years of the Syrian crisis and met King Abdullah II twice, and many heads of ministries (Jordan changes its Ministers frequently) as well as members of the political, intellectual and media elite.
At the beginning of the crisis, when the Syrian revolution was a peaceful movement agitating for democratic change, and al-Jazeera was broadcasting day and night in favour of regime change, the overwhelming majority of the Jordanian people supported the revolution; but, after three years, and nearly a million Syrian refugees on their territory, with a resultant economic crisis and decline in services for the indigenous population, there is a sea-change in popular opinion.
Since the crisis has morphed into a civil war and the Assad regime has proved so robust, many Jordanians now tend towards a conspiracy theory which sees foreign interference and a desire to destabilize the region. The US, according to this theory, sought to weaken those countries which offered the greatest obstruction to American regional hegemony and threat to Israel. A list prepared by the Pentagon cited Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. The whole of the Arab Spring is now subject to cynical scrutiny in the light of this prevailing theory.
Older Jordanians still remember the car bombs that exploded in Jordan after the 1982 Hama massacre because their Government allowed Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members to take refuge in Jordan. They do not hide their fears that these attacks might be repeated in the light of the current crisis.
Certainly, Turkey has already closed its south eastern gateway to Syria, after the crisis reflected negatively on its own internal security and stability. Unlike Turkey, Jordan is not a regional economic power but has an estimated public debt of about $30 billion and few natural resources. While the Gulf states are financially underpinning the military regime in Egypt they do not see fit to help their fellow monarchy in Jordan.
While a political solution seemed likely, Jordanians felt less vulnerable to security problems at home, but in the light of the Geneva Process’s failures, and now that the US has revised its strategy for a military intervention, they are full of fear and anxiety.
Nor should we forget the implications for Jordan of John Kerry’s plans for a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict. The Jordanians, it seems, have always to share their neighbours’ problems.