Islamist rise in Syria challenge to Jordan: analysts


An eventual fall of Syria’s regime, followed by the rise of an Islamist government could create a quandary for Jordan, a small country that has strategic ties with its northern neighbor, analysts say.

At the same time, even if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime survives pro-democracy protests against his 11-year rule, relations between Amman and Damascus are unlikely to improve, at least in the short term.

“Jordan is caught between a rock and a hard place, whether the current Syrian regime stays or goes,” political analyst Mohammad Abu Rumman told AFP.

“Decision makers here fear chaos in Syria if Assad’s regime falls. This chaos will have an impact on Jordan’s strategic and economic relations with Syria as well as security in the kingdom and the entire region.”

More than 65 percent of Jordan’s exports come through Syria, and many Jordanians in the north have relatives on the other side of the border as well as business trading in a variety of goods.

“For Jordan, the possible rise of Islamists in Syria, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, is worrisome. This will help the Islamists in the kingdom demand power, expanding the so-called ‘Brotherhood Crescent’ including North Africa, Syria and Jordan,” Abu Rumman said.

Islamists from Egypt to Morocco have won a whopping share of contested seats in elections, reaping the rewards of new democratic freedoms brought by the Arab Spring.

Syrian Islamists sought refuge in Jordan in 1982 after a massacre in the northern city of Hama, where the army killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people.

“If the Syrian regime manages to stay in power, this would be bothersome to Jordan. Syria’s state media are already attacking Jordan, and relations between the two countries are not likely to be good in the short term,” Abu Rumman added.

In November, King Abdullah II became the first Arab leader to openly call for Assad to step down, prompting Assad loyalists to storm Amman’s embassy in Damascus and tear down the national flag.

“Jordan will face more internal pressure if the Islamists take power in Syria,” Hassan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamist groups and issues, told AFP.

“Under this scenario, Jordan will have to give concessions to Islamists in the kingdom, where they have been leading pro-reform protests since last year. This will make the country fall into the circle of an ‘Islamist spring’. It is definitely a problem for Jordan.”

Jordan faces upheaval as it struggles to meet pressing popular demands for political change, economic reforms and an end to corruption.

The country is burdened with an external debt of $18 billion (13.6 billion euros), more than 65 percent of gross domestic product, as well as the challenges of considerable unemployment and poverty.

“I do not think Jordan will be fine with the rise of Islamists in Syria because this will change a lot of calculations for Jordan,” said analyst Oreib Rintawi, who runs Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies.

“Jordan has demographic, strategic, economic and security ties with Syria. Amman does not want to unbalance the formula. It will have to wait and see how things develop in Syria, and maybe act under pressure by the situation of Syrian refugees in the kingdom.”

Government figures are unavailable on Syrian refugees, but UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in Amman last month that the kingdom was hosting 2,500 Syrians. Independent estimates put the figure at more than 3,000.

But local newspapers have quoted unnamed officials as saying around 78,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring Jordan since the start of protests in Syria.

Jordan’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood played down fears about the rise of Islamists in Syria.

“An Islamist regime in Syria or any political change there is not and should not be dangerous for Jordan,” Brotherhood leader Hammam Said told AFP.

“Islamists do not seek to dominate power. There are a lot of challenges and everybody should take part in shouldering responsibility.”

Zaki Bani Rsheid, a senior leader of the Islamic Action Front, agreed with Said.

“The Islamists are completely aware of the challenges. They believe in true partnership,” he told AFP, adding that Jordan should focus on reforms “because such fears about the Islamist are unjustified.”

The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the IAF, represent the main opposition in Jordan.

“If we accept democracy, we have to accept its outcome and results as well as the rule of people,” said Bani Rsheid.

Rintawi said the “Islamists are being objective and practical. Many factors prevent them from fully controlling power. They know very well they cannot rule or govern without partnership with others. It is necessity and pressing need for them.”

For Abu Hanieh, the Islamists have proved they are pragmatic.

“Mainstream Islamists are pragmatists. For example, if they come to power in Syria, I think they will seek coalition with other parties. They will have a key role but they will not seek to exclude others.”