Jordan is urging the Obama administration to intensify efforts to find a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, warning that its northern neighbor appears increasingly headed toward either anarchy or a breakup that could imperil the region for decades to come.
Jordan’s monarch, King Abdullah II, presented a blunt assessment of the two-year-old conflict during meetings this week with congressional leaders and White House officials, citing evidence that a long-feared splintering of Syria along sectarian and tribal lines appears to be speeding up.
At the White House on Friday, the king described a “fragmentation of Syrian society, which is becoming more and more alarming.”
“We’re now seeing the surge of the second threat appear, which is that of militant terrorist organizations that have risen over the past several months,” Abdullah told reporters at the start of the meeting, his second with President Obama in a month.
Despite military gains by the rebels in some parts of Syria, Jordanian intelligence officials see potential for a protracted struggle lasting many more months or even longer, with neither side capable of a decisive victory. Left on its current trajectory, the conflict will result in “a Taliban-style failed state, or a series of small mini-states,” said a senior Jordanian official, insisting on anonymity in discussing intelligence assessments. “We’re looking at the potential for sectarian spillover, threatening the whole region.”
U.S. and Jordanian officials familiar with Abdullah’s congressional briefings said the monarch was particularly concerned about the growing dominance of al-Qaeda-aligned Islamist militants. Jordanian officials warned that the Islamists could be a destabilizing force in the region for years and could even come to power in some provinces if the country breaks apart.
Despite the failure of previous initiatives, the king urged a renewed attempt at a negotiated settlement as the only realistic path toward ending the conflict without splintering the country or condemning it to endless bloodshed. But he has acknowledged that such a settlement would not be acceptable to the rebels as long as President Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
A more immediate worry for Jordan is the burden of caring for more than a half-million Syrian refugees who have sought sanctuary there since the start of the conflict two years ago. The king has asked for $850 million in new U.S. aid this year to help Jordan cope with the flood of refugees that threatens to overwhelm the kingdom, a resource-poor country of 6 million that already was struggling with high unemployment, chronic water shortages and energy-supply disruptions before the crisis began.
Jordan’s largest Syrian refugee camp, known as Zaatari, has swollen to 125,000 inhabitants, making it essentially Jordan’s fifth-largest city. By the end of the year, the number of refugees in Jordan is projected to surpass 1 million, straining the capacity of the country’s schools and hospitals.
A key U.S. ally in the region, Jordan has partnered with the Obama administration on initiatives ranging from counterterrorism operations to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while also providing a staging ground for humanitarian relief since the start of the Syrian crisis. Abdullah has publicly denied published reports that his security services are providing military training for Syrian rebels.
Obama promised more U.S. support for Jordan and praised Abdullah for the country’s recent efforts at political reform, saying he believed Jordan “can be an extraordinary model for effective governance in the region.”
Jordan, which was spared the kind of massive unrest that swept many of its neighbors during the Arab Spring uprisings, held historic parliamentary elections this year that drew nearly 60 percent of the country’s eligible voters.
The polls were judged fair by international observers, although political parties aligned with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement boycotted the vote, arguing that election rules unfairly restricted their ability to contest seats.
U.S. officials fear that turbulence from Syria could complicate Abdullah’s efforts to implement economic and political reforms. Jordan was rocked by violent protests in November after the government lifted subsidies on gasoline and other fuels to comply with International Monetary Fund requirements.
Economic pressures have fueled popular resentment against the refugees, who are competing with Jordanians for a limited pool of jobs and housing.