Dealing with the Danger

It’s tempting to try to ignore the regional turmoil that’s fast becoming an existential threat to Jordan. But we have to face up to it.

Postscript- Osama Al-Sharif

We’re hosting over a million Syrians who fled the brutal civil war that has torn their country apart. Almost half of these are refugees, whose safety and well being are our responsibility. As well as the immense economic strain all this has brought, there are also serious political, social, and security repercussions to contend with.

In the absence of a political solution to the Syrian crisis appearing any time soon, the presence of these Syrians in Jordan will not be a temporary one, and will likely extend to years. As international attention to the war in Syria recedes, so will the generosity of international donors. The direct cumulative cost of hosting Syrian refugees is estimated to reach up to JD5.1 billion by the end of 2014. For a country with an endemic budgetary deficit, a whopping foreign debt burden ($25 billion and counting), and limited natural resources, this is a heavy burden to bear.

Economists agree that the positive impact of the Syrian crisis on the Jordanian economy is temporary and that eventually we will feel the results of the loss of trade with or through Syria, and the long-term effects of caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees.

But this isn’t all. Jordan’s vital trade links with Iraq have also been hit since militant groups like the Islamic State began to run amok. Conservative estimates put Jordan’s losses in trade with its neighbor at $140 million and counting. These vicious Salafist jihadists pose a direct threat to Jordan, especially if they maintain a grip hold over territories under their control in northern and western Iraq, and eastern and southern Syria.

This threat becomes even bigger as Jordan tries to grapple with its Salafist extremists, some of whom have pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. According to sources there are at least 3,000 Jordanians fighting with the Islamic State, and are fully committed to its puritanical brand of Islam that considers all others as apostates.

So in addition to the Syria war and its effects locally, and the Iraqi crisis with its long-term influence on our economy, Jordan has to confront a militant Islamist ideology with a foothold in the country in places like Zarqa and Ma’an.

The short and medium-term effects of regional turmoil in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—notwithstanding the endemic effects of the Palestinian issue and the latest aggression on Gaza—will continue to challenge Jordan politically, economically, and socially. But the more immediate effect of the Islamic State remains an unknown.

We have seen how this militant group managed to emerge as the most potent rebel power in Syria; overtaking other groups and forces especially in the east and south. A breathtaking expansion took place in northern and eastern Iraq; placing these hostile forces only a few hundred kilometers from our borders. The fact that some Salafist jihadists in Jordan have become loyal to the Islamic State should sound alarm bells. The group remains a minority in Jordan but according to experts its ideology appeals to a larger number of Jordanians.

This is why Jordanians need to remain vigilant. The danger of the Islamic State lies partly in its ability to lure the young. And it is the problems facing this section of our society that need to be addressed soon. Mounting economic and social problems will only present the Islamic State with more supply of disillusioned and unemployed young Jordanians.

Meanwhile, the state should take note that this region is going through an unprecedented challenge: countries are falling apart and sectarian and ethnic divisions are growing. It’s now that Jordan should focus on cementing its domestic front. We are confident that our security and armed forces are more than capable of confronting any foreign threat, but dealing with local challenges is now our utmost priority.

Eventually we will find solutions to addressing the problem of 1.2 million Syrians living in our midst. We will also overcome the loss of neighboring markets and deal with our economic challenges. But we must face the fact that poverty and unemployment among youth represent an existential test. It’s eating away at our socio-cultural identity and must be tackled.

We have to stay vigilant and respond forcefully to any attempt to harm or threaten the integrity of the state and its institutions. We shouldn’t take these threats lightly as the entire region succumbs to turmoil and divisions around us.