December 19, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Terror in Jordan and the Ripple Effects of Syria

• On December 18, four gunmen killed 10 people in an attack in the Jordanian city of Karak; the victims included police officers, civilians, and a Canadian tourist.

• Jordan—which alternates between being described as an oasis of stability or an unstable powder keg—is perpetually caught between larger regional forces.

• After nearly six years of conflict, violence and incitement on their borders, Syria’s neighbors are beginning to show even more signs of stress and instability.

• As bad as the situation in the Middle East is now, it can get far worse; sustained instability in Jordan would cause enormous ripple effects throughout the region.

As it has since the beginning of the conflict, the war in Syria continues to demonstrate that as bad as the situation is at a given moment, it can always get worse. The war has devastated Syrian society and history, and there is no foreseeable end to the fighting. The negative impact of the conflict has not been contained to within Syria’s borders. Indeed, the ramifications of the war have been felt across the region, causing significant geopolitical, economic, and demographic ripple effects. The countries that share borders with Syria have become long-term neighbors of war, and the strain—which has been showing for some time—is increasing. The prospects of further destabilization in the Middle East appear increasingly likely, given the depth and breadth of the external and internal stressors. If countries such as Jordan slide into a pattern of instability, the consequences—both regionally and globally—will be enormous.

Jordan has experienced continual economic and societal stress, fueled by a lack of natural resources such a water and an overabundance of neighboring conflict and refugees. While it has a well-earned reputation for stability, Jordan has long dealt with simmering pockets of extremism in certain areas of the small kingdom. In a region choked by conflict and extremism, any sustained level of violence in Jordan has the potential to be extremely destabilizing.

On December 18, four gunmen attacked several police posts in Karak, an ancient city approximately 80 miles south of Amman. The attack was drawn out, as the attackers hit two police posts and then holed up in an ancient castle that is a notable tourist attraction. Jordanian special forces ultimately killed the four gunmen, but not before the attackers had killed ten people, including at least four police officers, two Jordanian civilians, and a Canadian tourist. The vast majority of Jordanians abhor such attacks, and have overwhelmingly and publicly denounced terrorism after mass-casualty attacks such as the 2005 hotel bombings. The Jordanian military and police are well-respected within the country, and attacks on them are seen by many as an attack on the nation as a whole. 

Despite a strong foundation of rejecting terrorism, Jordan faces stronger than normal headwinds. The country’s economy is performing poorly, and Jordan has been stretched beyond capacity with refugees on its northern border with Syria. It receives substantial foreign assistance from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and the UN, but not nearly enough to offset the relentless erosion of stability that years of war in Syria and Iraq have inflicted along the edges—and now in the center—of the very small country.

As conditions continue to worsen in Jordan, there have been repeated warnings about the consequences of Jordan slipping into episodic or sustained instability. As Jordan has withstood the disruptive forces around it up to this point, it is tempting to believe it will continue to do so. But as the regional strains continue to get worse, it will become more and more difficult for Jordan to weather the stressors. Though the situation in Turkey is very different than the situation in Jordan, Turkey provides a clear example of how internal problems can be exacerbated by the war in Syria. Similarly, Jordan is not immune to the instability radiating out of Syria. While periodic terror attacks will not be the downfall of Jordan, the nonstop damage of neighboring war, a battered economy, and a young population coming of age in a time of regional extremism, is a combination few countries can withstand indefinitely.


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