Mandel Ngan / Reuters The Zaatari refugee camp near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, July 18, 2013.

Jordan's Danger Zone

The Perils of Building a Safe Haven in Syria

So far, the small kingdom of Jordan has sat on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis, experiencing the conflict mostly through the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have flowed across its northern border. But that may soon change. Over the past month, with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) moving perilously close to its border, Jordan has signaled its readiness to play a more active regional role, including building a humanitarian and military training zone in southern Syria, where it would assist Syrian rebels and unload its refugee population.

This plan could lead to disaster. The creation of a safe zone in Syria, which would be an unwelcome trespass on Syrian territory, may incite the Assad regime to retaliate against Jordan. It may also open a pathway into the kingdom for extremist groups.

This year’s June 10 festivities for Jordan’s Army Day, which commemorates the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, were highly symbolic and hinted at the kingdom’s new plan. During the celebrations, King Abdullah presented the Arab Army, the name for Jordan’s armed forces, with the Hashemite flag, which was carried during the revolt by members of the Hashemite clan, the direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. The inscription on the flag, which includes the Shahadatain (the Islamic testimonies that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is His messenger) as well as the bismillah (the first verse of Koran), emphasizes the leading historical role of the Hashemites in service of pan-Arab and Islamic causes.

The buffer zone might seem like a clever way to build a safety net and offload thousands of refugees, but it will actually undermine the kingdom’s security.
Ali Jarekji / Reuters Syrian refugees boys carry water for their family at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, August 12, 2012.

That might sound somewhat innocuous, but shortly after the Army Day ceremonies, Maher Abu Tair, a prominent Jordanian journalist wrote an article in a government-owned newspaper titled, “A New Arab Kingdom with Amman as its Capital.” He argued that Jordan should expand its kingdom to the Sunni parts of western Iraq and southern Syria as well as the West Bank. Abu Tair claimed that regional borders are fundamentally changing. To grapple with this

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