Walking a tightrope
REMAKING THE MIDDLE EAST
SPECIAL REPORTS : JORDAN
Iraq was just the beginning. American ambitions in the Middle East, some say, go well beyond removing Saddam Hussein. The plan is to transform the troubled region. The Straits Times Foreign Desk looks at how countries in the region are likely to react to having US forces at their doorsteps. King Abdullah II careful not to appear too pro-US
THE presence of American military might in Iraq is a double-edged sword for Jordan.
Analysts said that on the one hand Jordan benefited strategically by having US forces to counter-balance any potential problems that could emerge especially with Syria, its neighbour to the north.
But this extra security comes at a price. With the United States staying put in the Middle East for some time, it also puts one of Washington’s key allies, Israel, in a stronger position.
What that translates to in Amman is a fear of growing Israeli power and dominance over the West bank and Gaza and the implications for Palestinians there and the large numbers of them in Jordan.
Dr Mustafa Hamarneh, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, said given that the country shares borders with several other countries and having no economic or military clout, Amman would back a US presence in the short-term.
Jordan views its alliance with the US as its primary strategic relationship. While making clear that no invasion can originate from Jordan, Amman allowed the discreet stationing of US troops in its eastern border during the war against Iraq.
This was critical for the US to man air defences, launch search-and-rescue missions from its airfields and allow American and British planes to cross its airspace in the war with Iraq.
Military cooperation has been buttressed by increases in aid, joint training and personal contacts. King Abdullah II has importantly underpinned those links.
A former soldier, he made a decision last August after visiting Washington not to repeat what his father did in 1991 – openly back Iraq.
He distanced himself publicly from the war under strong domestic pressure while quietly supporting the American war effort.
Jordan was rewarded with free oil from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to make up for lost Iraqi supplies, and its companies and port of Aqaba are set to reap the benefits from an Iraqi reconstruction bonanza.
The key now is for the monarch to balance security considerations with domestic concerns at home.
Encircled by Israel, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Jordan is in the middle of the never-ending dilemma of how Jews and Arabs can live together in peace.
Israel’s growing clout as a result of an American perch in the Middle East is particularly sensitive for Jordan because it has a large Palestinian population, many of whom were displaced from now Israeli-occupied territories.
‘We are afraid Israel will take also the freedom to do what they want to do in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,’ said Major-General Abdul Jalil, former head of the Royal War College in Jordan.
‘The longer the US stays in Iraq, the more fodder it gives to Islamic groups who oppose the ruling regime.
‘They have reasons to do so now because they can tell people that the Americans are coming for a new imperialism in the area and there will be those who will believe them.
‘How America behaves and what it does in Iraq may minimise these voices or give them more credibility.’
This comes at a time when Palestinian refugees in Jordan are increasingly funnelling their frustrations to the politics of Islamic parties.
The shift away from secular nationalism has stepped up in recent years.
The King is struggling to balance both his alliance with Washington and a peace treaty with Israel with popular sentiments among Palestinians and other Jordanians that run the other way.
Jordan will be a big winner if there is a stable post-war government in Iraq. But if the US flounders and drags on its presence in the country and region, it will only undermine the King’s position at home.