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.

What would a buffer zone mean for Syria and Jordan?

The conflict in Syria, which has had such a massive and devastating impact on Jordan moreso than perhaps any other country except Syria itself, appears that it is entering a new phase.

There are many current indications that the US and its allies are preparing some type of intervention. The US is leaving warplanes and missile batteries in Jordan at the request of the Jordanian regime, which could be used to enforce either a no fly zone or a more limited buffer zone, though the Obama administration has not yet made any public decisions about this yet. A recent report indicated that one potential option under consideration by the Obama administration is for a limited no fly zone along the border that would extend approximately 40 km into Syria, and would be enforced by aircraft operating from within Jordan. These pilots would be able to enter Syrian airspace in self-defense if they were fired upon or encountered advancing planes, although US air-to-air missiles have a sufficiently long range to make that scenario potentially unnecessary.

Interestingly, the publicly stated positions of the Jordanian government are not necessarily in line with these news reports. Jordan Times quotes a government spokesman, Mohammad Momani, as saying that the Jordanian government opposes international military action in Syria. In a speech on Sunday at a graduation at Mutah University, King Abdullah said that the crisis imposed “some harsh realities” on Jordan but said that Jordan has a moral responsibility to help those affected by the conflict, and that he favored a political solution. He also said that “the first and ultimate goal has been to protect Jordan and Jordanian’s’ interests.”

How should comments by the government spokesman and King Abdullah be examined alongside the media reports that Jordan has given approval to the use of its territory to enforce a no-fly zone along the border? Is this another example of the regime telling one thing to foreign diplomats and officials and another to the Jordanian people? That is probably part of it, but there is also something else – what these proposals may signal is that the Jordanian regime believes that it cannot continue to admit large numbers of refugees from Syria for much longer due to the strain that they are causing and wants to establish a buffer zone along the border so that it does not have to do that anymore. This would be in line with a recent Al-Monitor article that says that Jordan has closed border crossings with Syria and that there are large numbers of refugees who are stranded along the Syrian side.

The article says that large numbers of refugees are waiting in the Daraa region border villages of Naseeb, Tell Shihab, and Heit, and that a large number of refugees were waiting in Tell Shihab. In the event that a no-fly zone were implemented that extended 40km from the border between Jordan and Syria, this area would be within the no-fly zone, so the Jordanian regime might then say that it no longer needs to admit the refugees because they are within a buffer zone inside Syria, where rebel forces would also be provided with training. What this means is that upon closer examination the proposal for a “no-fly zone” may be as much about taking the pressure off of Jordan. The regime’s denial that it supports intervention in Syria can be understood in the context of not wanting to appear subordinate to the United States, due to the fact that there are some within Jordan who would object to a major presence of American forces.

The problem with this proposal, if one puts aside potential objections to American foreign policy, is that it carries all the negative elements of American intervention while also being inadequate to change the balance of power inside Syria, as the regime has gotten the upper hand recently. It is in many ways not a decision to intervene so much as a decision to preserve the status quo in a modified way for a longer period of time, even though for refugees in the potential buffer zone life may be worse than it is within Jordan.

Jordan and the United States Under Obama: A Complex Alliance

King Abdullah and President Obama appeared at a news conference following their meeting on Friday. The King welcomed Obama to Jordan and mentioned the subjects they discussed in their meeting, which included Syria and the influx of refugees, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, political reform, and , and thanked the United States for its continued support which he said “has allowed us to get Jordan where we are today,” and discussed the reform measures that the government has introduced, and said Jordan could be an example of peaceful reform. He said “This is the Jordanian moment.  What we’re seeing is the third way in the Middle East — we are seeing that the Arab Spring is behind us; we in Jordan are looking now at the Arab Summer for us all, which means that we all have to roll our sleeves”

President Obama reciprocated the King’s praise, saying that “Jordan is an invaluable ally. It is a great friend,” Obama praised King Abdullah and and said that the reform process in Jordan  and said that the United States was committed to Jordan’s security, including from the dangers of a spillover from the conflict in Syria. He pledged to seek support for $200 million in additional budget support from congress in addition to loan guarantees, with this aid intended to help with economic reform and offset the impact of the conflict in Syria and the influx of refugees. He praised the reform process and said that the economic reforms were necessary and that Jordan had an opportunity to be an example of peaceful change.

King Abdullah and President Obama had much praise for each other at the press conference, and Jordan-US relations are indeed strong, but the relationship is much more complex than this. Obama alluded to this when he said that “Our cooperation on Syria is an example of how the partnership between the United States and Jordan improves the lives not only of the Jordanian people, but peoples across the region.” What Obama meant was that Jordan’s actions in keeping its borders open have produced benefits for other states in the region. However, these benefits – to others – have come at a substantial cost to Jordan that has not always been reciprocated. Even now, President Obama alone does not have the ability to provide the additional $200 million in budget support to Jordan, as he actually said that he would work with congress to provide it. Given the recent history of American politics that is not necessarily a sure thing. Meanwhile, the expenses that Jordan is incurring are happening right now.

Jordan has done a lot for numerous other states in the region, and the hosting of refugees from Syria is only the most recent thing, and yet the promises that have been made to Jordan in return have not always been met. This is not to say that the $200 million in assistance or the loan guarantees will not be provided, but it is important to note that it is not a certainty, and it is worth noting that most of the money totalling $1.5 billion pledged at a conference in Kuwait in January has not materialized. Pledged assistance from several of the Gulf states has also been late in arriving.

It is important, in the future, to ensure that Jordan’s reliance on aid is reduced even as it is needed at present for the short term. This would ensure that the present situation – in which Jordan does things for others in the region and elsewhere that are very costly – and for which it is not supported to the degree that it should be, despite the expenses and difficulties it has encountered on the issue of Syria and numerous other issues that have emerged in recent years.