Are Syrian Children Being Denied Entry into Jordan?

According to a recent statement by Amnesty International, many of the refugees who have been recently waiting to cross the border from Syria into Jordan are families with young children who are fleeing the ongoing conflict. One of the examples that was discussed in the same Ammon News article is the case of Amina, who was told to return in a month with her six children. This is despite the fact that the conflict has prevented them from being able to return to their home village of Dera’a al-Hera, forcing them to live out on the road and forage for food. There were also reports of other families with young children who were being forced to turn back when they attempted to enter Jordan.

In an ongoing conflict such as this one, denial of entry into a neighboring country can mean a literal death sentence for many refugees. Said Boumedouha, the director of Amnesty International’s Middle Eastern division said that Jordan (and other neighboring countries) have an obligation not to deny entry to refugees. He also said that it is also important for other countries to provide aid to states like Jordan which are affected so heavily by the conflict. These reports of Syrians who can provide evidence of their citizenship in Syria represent a new and much less welcoming attitude to refugees who are escaping a desparate situation. Regardless of one’s belief about the effects of the conflict on Jordanian infrastructure, few would dispute the fact that it is immoral to deny children the chance to escape from a violent conflict. A report from December 2012 (which is admittedly several months old) say that a majority of the refugees in Jordan may be children. Many of these children have resorted to attempting to sell goods to other refugees for a little bit of income to provide for necessities.

It is true that the presence of the refugees has provided a strain on Jordan’s economy and infrastructure at a most unfortunate time. It is also true that the situation in the region as a whole compounds the difficulties to a large degree. Particularly stressful for many communities is the influx of refugees who are settling in urban areas rather than living in refugee camps, which makes aid more difficult to deliver. Another way that the conflict has stressed Jordan’s infrastructure is through the impact of lost trade revenue with Syria, prompting the economic collapse of communities that used to depend on trade with Jordan’s northern neighbor. When this economic collapse is coupled with an influx of refugees it is not surprising that a degree of resentment would develop among some Jordanians towards the refugees who have become unwitting symbols of the difficulties that the conflict is causing in Jordan. This resentment is not surprising but it is also unfair to direct it at the refugees or to blame them for the situation that the conflict has caused for Jordanians.

The decision to turn away child refugees is deplorable, but admitting more refugees when the pace of aid is unclear is indeed going to further strain Jordan’s resources. Families with young children must be allowed to escape the conflict, but more recognition is required of the strains on Jordan and indeed other neighboring states that the conflict in Syria has caused. Perhaps the real issue is not really the presence of refugees themselves but rather the fact that most of the parties supporting either side in this conflict are participating for real or perceived strategic advantage, while shifting most of the harm of the conflict onto neighboring states such as Jordan.

Is King Abdullah worried about being overthrown?

King Abdullah is said to have told US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and US Senator Lindsey Graham (a Republican from South Carolina) that he is afraid of being overthrown. This was revealed at a hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee at which Graham and Dempsey had an exchange in which they said they had both met with King Abdullah, who is said to be very concerned of being overthrown due to demographic changes in Jordan. He is said to have told Graham in 2012 that Syrian refugees may destabilize Jordan and cause his ouster, and when Graham asked Dempsey about it, Dempsey shared a similar concern.

Last year, as mentioned above, King Abdullah is said to have believed that demographic changes caused by the presence of Syrian refugees may be a potential cause of his overthrow. He is said to have told Graham that there would be one million Syrian refugees in Jordan and that this would pose a grave risk to the regime. As things stand now, the numbers of refugees who are present in Jordan is not completely clear. A recent report indicates that there are approximately 450,000 in Jordan presently, although this may be a low estimate. One important fact to remember is that while most of the refugees are in the Zaatari refugee camp, there are undoubtedly other refugees who are dispersed among Jordanian cities. Other reports indicate that the number of refugees in Jordan may be much higher, at about 800,000 in total. It is also true that Jordan is in poor financial shape and that it is ill-placed to cope with this influx of refugees who are fleeing from the conflict in Syria to the north.

This is, of course, not the first time that Jordan has faced a large influx of refugees who are fleeing a conflict that is taking place in a neighboring country. During the Iraq war hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Jordan although the exact number is hard to determine.

What are we to make of these comments that King Abdullah is said to have made about the potential of being overthrown? Perhaps it is genuine fear – the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees who are attempting to leave a conflict zone with no end in sight certainly has the potential to have a destabilizing effect. However, there may be something else at play here – an attempt by the regime to seek additional aid from the United States to address the costs of hosting these refugees. Perhaps both are involved. Only time will tell.

It is too early to tell what to make of King Abdullah’s comments about his potential overthrow, but what is clear is that the conflict in Syria has the potential to spread far beyond Syria’s borders. If it continues as it is now for an indefinite period it is impossible to predict the effects that it will have on the region and especially on neighboring countries, Jordan included.

Is there hope for the “Friends of Syria” meeting on Wednesday?

As Jordan prepares to host a Friends of Syria meeting on Wednesday to be attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the conflict in that country seems only to be getting worse. Prospects for a solution to the conflict seem dim, and Jordan is the country most affected by it apart from Syria itself. The Geneva 2 conference sponsored by the United States and Russia that is expected to take place next month is still plagued with uncertainty as the opposition has been unable to agree on who exactly will represent it in the negotiations. President Assad took a hard line in a recent interview in which he called opposition forces “terrorists” who he would not negotiate with, while the opposition remains divided amongst itself. Despite tens of thousands of deaths and 1.5 million refugees the conflict shows no sign of concluding anytime soon.

At the meeting on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, Germany, and Italy will meet to dicuss events in Syria. They will also try to decide on common positions ahead of the Geneva 2 Conference.

In perhaps a disturbing analogy, an article on Al-Monitor says that the negotiations would begin “Vietnamese Style” without a ceasefire. The issue is that if an agreement is reached while fighting continues there is a risk that it will be meaningless on the ground even as its signing appears to be a major achievement.

Meanwhile, the conflict continues. Jordan is now hosting 500,000 Syrian refugees with more entering the country every day as the conflict has escalated. Al-Jazeera reports that the Zaatari refugee camp will become the world’s largest by the end of the year if the conflict continues, and that if it were a city it would be Jordan’s fifth largest. In addition, it is also important to recognize that things could get worse, a lot worse, if this conflict continues. Syria has approximately 22.5 mllion people, with 1.5 million of them living as refugees. Of those refugees, one third of them are in Jordan, temporarily increasing the population from 6.5 million to 7 million. It is not difficult at all to envision hundreds of thousands more refugees entering Jordan if the conflict continues. In addition, every single regional actor has been drawn in, and the recent battle in Qusair had Hezbollah fighting alongside Syrian troops, with Israel threatening more air strikes.

Where do things go from here? This conflict is not and should not be portrayed as a manichean struggle between a virtuous opposition and an evil regime. Some in the opposition undoubtedly support an authoritarian state, albeit one of a different kind, and many countries backing the opposition have either problematic histories in the region, or human rights abuses of their own. But one also cannot escape the recognition that in Syria there is a regime that believes it should be in power regardless of what the Syrian people decide. Even if one were to pretend, for a moment, that most of the population supported Assad, there is nothing in his past actions that indicates a willingness to take the opinions of the Syrian people into account. Of this there is no doubt. Coupled with the regime’s willingness to retain power at any cost is the notion that loyalty to the regime and to the country of Syria are bound together, creating a bizarre logic in which those taking up arms against a regime that has shown its willingness to commit brutal atrocities are “terrorists” and where Syria must be defended against its own people. It’s a worldview where Syrians opposed to the regime are agents of foreign influence but Hezbollah fighters are not.

There is little immediate prospect of a solution to the conflict, and it seems that for the time being Jordan will continue to bear the greatest proportional burden as fighting continues.

Riots Show Jordan’s Political Crisis Continues

The elections were supposed to bring change, so why did riots take place throughout Jordan for several days afterwards? These events show that far from being over, the country’s political crisis continues to smolder. It’s not explosive, but its still there and still smoldering in the background of everything taking place in Jordanian politics. A total of 31 riots were said to have taken place between January 23rd (when the election was held) and January 26th, and these riots included shootings, blocked roads, and attacks on public institutions. Protesters also tried to attack Prime Minister Ensour’s home in Salt and the headquarters of the IEC in Amman, although police blocked their path in both locations. In Mafraq one person died in clashes between the supporters of rival tribal candidates, and there have been tribal protesters chanting slogans in support of the opposition, while the Muslim Brotherhood was largely absent.

Why is all of this happening? Part of it, of course, is the rivalries between tribal candidates causing clashes, but there is something more here as well. The election was not accepted universally by all political groups as a means of bringing about change in the way Jordan is governed. Many of them, including the Islamic Action Front and many reformist groups boycotted because they felt that the election was more of a way of the loyalists giving themselves legitimacy than it was a genuine effort at political reform.

These sentiments may have been reinforced by the selection of the person who is going to be negotiating on behalf of the regime when discussions on the selection of the next government begin: former Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, who is now Chief of the Royal Court. According to a recent Al-Monitor article, Tarawneh was selected because for exactly this role. According to the article, “During the past years, Tarawneh has become known for doing what is asked of him quite accurately, and for being a good manager of the pawns in the political game, in accordance with the inclinations of decision-makers.” In this case, his selection might perhaps be another sign of the inclinations of decision makers. King Abdullah appointed him as PM when he ousted former Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, and he is appointing him Royal Court Chief now. If his appointment is indeed a signal of the regime’s inclinations, then does not bode well for future efforts at reform during the coming parliament.

What Happens After January 23rd?

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January 23rd is rapidly approaching, and many have wondered what will happen when this magical day arrives.

King Abdullah gave an interview with Al-Rai and the Jordan Times in which he placed great emphasis on the upcoming parliamentary elections on January 23rd. He talked about the elections as though they were a major step in the reform process and that everything would magically change after they were held.

King Abdullah promised that “The future of reform is in the hands of the Jordanian voters as they go to the polls early next year” in his interview with Jordan Times and Al-Rai. He said this of Jordanian voters: “They are the ones who will decide the composition of the coming parliament and government. What we seek to establish is a process whereby voters hold deputies and the government emerging from the coming House accountable, based on their platforms and the solutions they suggest to the various challenges.”

He said this of the electoral law: “We have the Elections Law that was developed to a certain level at this stage of reform and was enacted through constitutional channels. However, it will be open for debate, development and change by future parliaments.” He has said previously that the new Prime Minister will be chosen by parliament after the elections. He claims that the elections will be a step on the way to having a true parliamentary government.

What does all this really mean? The answer is nothing, or if something does happen it is only going to be symbolic. If King Abdullah were serious about reform he would have implemented it five years ago, but nothing has changed. The regime has done nothing substantive that actually limited the power of the monarchy. Yes many changes in the government have been made, four to be exact in two years. What Jordan needs is a visionary. Someone who is willing to go against the regime and implement real change for the people. King Abdullah track record proves that he’s not ready for reform nor does he know how to implement true reform.

Reform is complicated, hard, and will surely not happen overnight. However, one must start the reform process somewhere for anything to really change. We are not expecting to wake up tomorrow to a newly reformed country, what is expected however, is incremental steps taken by the King to show the people that he does care. These small steps cannot be in the form of false promises, interview opportunities and democratization papers but rather real steps that are beneficial to the citizens, not just the elite.

At this point, all reform is on hold until the magical day arrives, January 23, 2013. In the words of King Abdullah “despite the difficult situation we are in, I am optimistic about the future. God willing, we will overcome this crisis.”

Update: Problems with Sale of Aqaba Port

We have it on good authority that the Jordanian government has made a major mistake yet again, selling the current port of Aqaba before the new port is ready, which requires them to lease it back from the investor who acquired the port for $1 billion.

This is a major problem. As mentioned in the previous post, this still affects Jordan economically. In one year, they lose $500 million. If it takes longer it could reach into the billions. When your people are economically struggling, this is a big deal and should be taken very seriously.

How can one raise fuel-subsidies for the citizens but then engage in such a disastrous deal? There is no excuse, those who are running a country are held to a higher standard, and therefore must put their citizens above all else.

In our previous post we had indicated that it was sold secretly, it was not – it was part of a deal with Al-Maabar International Investments that was announced several years ago. However, this was the only part of this story that was incorrect – the government still is not forthcoming about the fact that the new port facilities will not be ready in time and they will have to rent it back for $1 billion a year. They are highlighting the one mistake to cover up their incompetence.

Is this the reform King Abdullah promised?

Two Court Rulings in Kuwait

The Administrative Court ruled on Monday that the Emir’s decree reducing the number of votes from four to one is a “sovereign act” and is thus not subject to review by the Administrative Court. The Constitutional Court, which has the authority to rule on such issues is expected to hear an appeal from the opposition after the election.

Another Administrative Court bench ruled that many of the disqualified candidates could participate in the elections, but this is not the blessing for democracy that it seems. Many of these candidates are reported to have accepted bribes from the regime. The former MPs who are allowed to run include Saleh Ashour, Youssef Al-Zalzalah, Khalaf Dumaitheer, Saadoun Hammad, Askar Al-Enezi and Khaled Al-Adwah. They had previously been disqualified on the grounds that they did not enjoy a “good reputation.”

It is interesting that they were excluded on these grounds. The most significant allegation against many of them was that they accepted bribes from the regime (which was the cause of the scandal which led to the storming of parliament and the resignation of then-PM Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah.

This court ruling was perhaps the last opportunity to avert an escalation of Kuwait’s political crisis. The Constitutional Court will likely review the decision after the election, but even if they rule in favor of the opposition is would extend the crisis into new territory. If they annul the decree they would likely annul the election also, meaning that Kuwaiti citizens would be going to vote yet again.